UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Great Debate: Opportunity or Right: A False Dichotomy

The debate over whether higher education is an opportunity or a right creates a false dichotomy between

the two terms. And, there are justifiable reasons to argue that higher education falls into both of these

categories. For instance, Merriam-Webster defines “opportunity” as “a good chance for advancement or

progress” and it is difficult to deny that higher education functions as a vehicle for progress. In fact, many

students matriculate into colleges across the country every year with the primary purpose of expanding

their job opportunities and potential lifelong earnings.


On the other hand, higher education can also reasonably be viewed as a “right.” Merriam-Webster defines

a right as “something to which one has a just claim” and the assertion that higher education is a right is

logical for many reasons. For example, given the fact that our economy is progressively more knowledge-

based, higher education is increasingly seen as necessary for many people to achieve economic self-

sufficiency. And, it is difficult to argue with the notion that people should have the right to be economically

stable. Furthmore, what about the famous phrase from our founding documents that our Creator has

bestowed upon all men (and women) the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” If

this is true, shouldn’t we consider the ability to pursue happiness, through getting a college education and

achieving economic self-sufficiency, a right?


Regardless of the side of the debate on which one falls, any claim that higher education is distinctly an

opportunity or a right requires a faulty assumption that something so complex can neatly and exclusively be

placed into one of those two categories. Of course, this is not true. For example, whether higher education

is more an opportunity or a right depends on whom you ask and where you ask them – a refugee who is

escaping a war-torn country might see access to higher education in the United States as an incredible

opportunity, while a billionaire’s child might see it as an expected right that can and will never be taken

away. This question about the nature of higher education, like all debate, has value because it sparks

critical thought, reflection on our own values, and the exchange of ideas that lead to progress. However,

an informed discussion of this question requires a consideration of other critical questions about the role of

higher education in larger society.


Indeed, the competing sides of this debate focus on the role of higher education in the lives of the individual

– whether it is an individual’s right or opportunity. But, such a focus distracts us from questions about

the public value of higher education. It detracts attention from the fact that greater numbers of college

graduates translate into higher average earnings, increased tax contributions, a more qualified workforce,

and lower incarceration and poverty rates across the nation. If we consider this fact that each and every

student’s success benefits us all, would we not conclude that the opportunity to pursue higher education

should be treated as a right to which every American is entitled? If so, we might conclude that higher

education is both an opportunity and a right.