Higher Education As Privilege

Six point seven percent of human beings on earth have some form of degree from an institution of higher education. Only one-third of U.S. citizens have college degrees. In a 2005 National Survey of Undergraduates, of those surveyed, only 16 percent were first-generation college students. Children of college graduates are more likely to go to college.
According to one Harvard study, people with degrees from higher education live, on average, seven years longer than their peers without degrees. These studies don’t even specify degree type. If we were able to only look at those who held four-year degrees, the statistics would be even starker. Many Lawrence students will go on to pursue even more specialized degrees in graduate programs. Consider the percentage of the world with master’s degrees; not to mention doctorates—or even multiple graduate degrees.

If one considers the demographics of the world as if there were only 100 people, In this example, 87 people would be able to read and write but only 7 would have college degrees.
Despite all of the conversations going on at Lawrence—and elite institutions like it—about privilege and intersectionality, this glaring and self-evident form of privilege is not acknowledged.

One student population that I think is particularly exposed to this glaring inequity is first-generation students. Many first-generation students come from impoverished families. A large percentage of first-generation college students are of color or immigrants or both. These students have been exposed to the realities of not having a college degree in the US.. or have seen the access to higher education in foreign countries. Despite the lack of acknowledgment, many Lawrentian’s have been made aware of these discrepancies. People who don’t have degrees have a harder time getting a good job, are more likely to be food insecure and are even more likely to end up in prison.

In my admittedly limited exposure to activist and organizer spaces, I have come to understand that allyship is a process. One has to acknowledge their privileges and biases and then do the difficult and uncomfortable work required to become educated so that you can use your privilege to deconstruct nefarious institutions and constructs like White Supremacy and Patriarchy. In my case, this meant looking at the ways in which I was complicit in other people’s oppression. For instance, as a Greek-affiliated white passing and (mostly) heterosexual man, I have to honestly confront the reality that I have been complicit in the formation of, and unintentionally perpetuated rape culture on campus. Once one confronts reality and stops being defensive, then they can start to work to make their communities more equitable.

I have been able to better understand my peers from different backgrounds and with different identities much better since attempting this model of allyship.

When thinking about higher education as privilege, one should use this same practice. University students—especially at places like Lawrence—are among the most privileged people in the world. All of our needs are taken care of so that we can focus on studying and, despite the scarcity of access to education, not studying. Our food is cooked for us, our bathrooms and communal living spaces are cleaned and we don’t have to lift a finger. If anything we use or come in contact with is broken, a staff member fixes it. We are able to devote our entire lives and in some cases life savings, for four years, to pursuing our educations, but also to make ourselves more valuable to employers.

As inherently valuable as education is, the undeniable truth is that many go to college hoping to have access to more specialized fields, which often have higher pay than entry-level jobs requiring only a high school degree. What does a degree from a liberal arts school demonstrate to employers? Obviously a liberal arts background helps foster strong writing and problem solving skills, but part of the value is that a person with this kind of degree had the socio-economic status required in order to attain admittance and had the ability to wait four years before entering the workforce.

A large percentage of Lawrence students receive financial aid, and poverty obviously intersects with access to education, but the reality is that any individual with access to an institution like Lawrence is still a part of a privileged minority that can’t make up more than one percent of the world’s population.

At Lawrence, there is much that needs to be done to make our campus equitable for marginalized students. And I want to state clearly that thinking about higher education contextualizes other forms of oppression; it does not delegitimize any other of the oppressive systems at play on our campus. Nor am I trying to claim everyone at Lawrence is equally privileged; we’re not. By understanding the way education intersects with other forms of oppression we can have more nuanced views and discussions. Despite the necessity of improving our campus in terms of inclusion, students of all backgrounds—even marginalized ones—could gain a lot and nuance their perspectives by unpacking the privilege of being a Westerner (or someone who attends a Western-style university) at an elite institution of higher learning in the U.S.

One thing this confrontation with reality reveals to us is that, while it is certainly an individual’s responsibility to educate themselves about privilege and social justice, as university students, we have access to literature and pedagogies that are nonexistent and or inaccessible for most of the world. In my life I have had the honor of engaging with organic academics who are interested in privilege and intersectionality. The reality of these individuals’s lives forced them to confront these nefarious forces in society. These individuals, often because of the way they are treated by society for who they are, become engaged and a part of the dialogue around these issues. Despite their unique and complicated perspectives, those without the proper vocabulary are sometimes silenced by those who “know better.” These important conversations will hopefully help shape our culture in the future. Sadly, these conversations are mostly happening on campuses that are clearly not available to everyone. We have to ask ourselves: who are we excluding, and what systems of power and oppression have led to us being implicit in their exclusion?

These are very difficult questions that I couldn’t hope to answer in an article like this or even in a complete dissertation. What I can advocate for is this: I believe that Lawrentians should adopt a “lucky few” mentality. We are no more deserving of education than any other qualified candidate, but societal and cultural forces beyond our control have opened this opportunity to us. It is our charge to use this massive, beautiful and powerful privilege to deconstruct the institutions and constructs that perpetuate oppression. Personally I value justice for all people largely because of how important my Jewish faith and culture is to my worldview. In the Talmud, a foundational text of Judaism, it is written that “Scholars enhance peace in the world.” I think this is profound wisdom. Use your degree to make college something within everyone’s reach, no matter who their parents are or what country they are from.