As high school seniors across the country make their college decisions right now, I would like to raise awareness for higher education as a human right. Many high school graduates will get into the college of their dreams, but their families will be unable to afford to send them there. For many others, even their decisions on where to apply were driven by costs, not wanting to spend the admission fee or considering the fact that they could not afford to go to a particular highly selective institution if they did get in due to exorbitant costs. Worldwide, displaced students from war-torn countries are not getting the education they need to enable them to return to their countries and rebuild or integrate themselves fully into their host countries. Not only is this a crisis on a moral level, it is a crisis from a national security perspective.
Higher education is a human right. Education is recognized as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The right to education is also included in other conventions against discrimination. Courts in the European Union have recognized higher education as a human right. While most people around the world now accept that primary education is a human right, many still dismiss higher education as a human right. Yet there is no logical endpoint for education in today’s increasingly global and complex society where advanced degrees are often needed to succeed in many fields. I am not arguing that everyone should go to college–only those with capacity and desire. Education is closely tied to human dignity and other human rights – such as the right to vote and freedom of speech. And, in the words of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “a well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence.”
Costs at many private universities are now estimated to be between $50,000 and $70,000 a year. However, the median household income in the United States is only $59,039. This is a serious problem. We cannot risk having higher education become a luxury item. It is not.
Without understanding education, including higher education, as a human right, we risk our country losing the very ideal it was founded on–access to the American dream. The reasons many families came to America was because here, unlike anywhere else in the world, if you were smart and capable, you could make it. Your family name or circumstances did not define the outcome of your life. If we lose this, not only do we lose innovators, those who will make advances in many different fields, but we lose our identity as a nation.
And, interestingly, this is a time when national security and human rights go hand-in-hand. We cannot risk a society in which only one group – the wealthy – can afford higher education. We need diverse viewpoints to come up with innovative solutions to countering terrorism at home and abroad. On a global level, as the war in Syria drags on, we cannot risk a “lost generation” of students who do not get the education they need. Syria will need its youth to return, educated, to their country and rebuild it so it does not become another fertile ground for radicalism to take root and grow. For the refugees that stay in their host countries, it will be education that helps integrate them fully into their host countries. The Islamic State and other terror groups have figured out how to use a warped form of education to recruit and brainwash recruits with social media and the internet. It will be education, not bombs, that is most likely to counter their radicalization messages. As Nelson Mandela has said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Access to higher education is vital. Financial aid can only help a limited number of students and loans are extremely burdensome. For a student from a disadvantaged, or even middle-class, background, an economist may tell you college is worth the $240,000 debt, but that number is understandingly daunting to most. And, for many fields, an advanced degree is required so the amount of debt would increase as well. Imagine starting your first job with $400,000 or more in debt. There are some programs in place that are a great start – for example, New York State has a program where families making less than $125,000 can attend, tuition-free, any school in the State University or City University of New York system. So, let’s recognize higher education as a human right and work to counter the increasing costs of higher education that is leaving too many students behind.
Heidi Gilchrist is an Assistant Professor of Legal Writing at Brooklyn Law School and a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School. Her scholarship focuses on national security law issues and the intersection of national security with civil rights and human rights law. She previously served in the federal government as a national security analyst and subsequently as a liaison to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York City.
Suggested citation: Heidi Gilchrist, Higher Education Is a Human Right, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Apr. 27, 2018, http://jurist.org/academic/2018/04/gilchrist-edu-human-right.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Henna Bagga, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at