Today is Human Rights Day. While celebrating the importance of human rights throughout the world, this holiday also commemorates the UN’s passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. After a two-year drafting process (by a 18 member committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt), 48 countries came together to vote in favor of making a non-binding commitment to the expansion of human rights and universal respect for human dignity. Not a single vote was cast against the Declaration (although 8 countries did abstain).

Among the human rights issues enumerated in the Declaration, was the right to education. The first section of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads as follows:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

 

The notion of equal access to higher education was, and should still be considered, a radical notion. While an unbinding standard in the Declaration, aspects of the goal of nondiscriminatory access to higher education has been inscribed in multiple binding human rights conventions. Some key examples:

  • Article 13.2.(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:
    • Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.
  • Article 28.1(c) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child:
    • States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular: (c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means.
  • Article 24.5 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:
    • States Parties shall ensure that persons with disabilities are able to access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others. To this end, States Parties shall ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided to persons with disabilities.
  • Article 5.e.v of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: 
    • States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of the following rights: v. The right to education and training.
  • Article 4(a) of the Convention Against Discrimination in Education:
    • The States Parties to this Convention undertake furthermore to formulate, develop and apply a national policy which, by methods appropriate to the circumstances and to national usage, will tend to promote equality of opportunity and of treatment in the matter of education and in particular: (a) To make primary education free and compulsory; make secondary education in its different forms generally available and accessible to all; make higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of individual capacity; assure compliance by all with the obligation to attend school prescribed by law.
  • Article 10 of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women:  
    • States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to them equal rights with men in the field of education and in particular to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women.

 

It should be clear that “the progressive introduction of free (higher) education” has yet to be achieved in the United States. After all, higher education costs are up more than 1,120% in the past 36 years.

Furthermore, unequal access to educational resources during elementary and secondary education in the United States undercuts the realization of equal access on the basis of merit to higher education. One Department of Education indicator reveals that about “28 percent of high school graduates from high-poverty schools attended a 4-year institution after graduation, compared with 52 percent of high school graduates from low-poverty schools.” 

It is true that the cost of enrolling and the ability to enroll determine access to higher education for many students and families. But, as College Parents of America has emphasized, access to higher education has another key facet. Access is not only the ability to begin higher education, but the conditions that enable a student to persist to a degree. Access is not an initial moment, but rather something that extends throughout a student’s time in college.

There is statistical evidence that supports this view of access. Parental income and parental education are still predictors of college success, which is a sign of unequal access for students in college. Even after acceptance and enrollment, many different events can trigger a withdrawal from college. Costs to stay enrolled are often prohibitive for students and families. These costs often cause many students to withdraw from college to work full-time. Physical health problems, which might be more common than one would expect of college students, can make staying in school complicated and difficult. Furthermore, a recent study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness stated that 64% of students surveyed who left college without a degree in the past 5 years did so because of a mental illness.

Access to higher education, without the corresponding supporting conditions to complete that education, is an incomplete notion. As access and equality in acceptance is realized, it is imperative, in the interest of human rights, that equal access in persistence is ensured.

On Human Rights Day 2013, College Parents of America supports the full realization of the human right to higher education, with particular commitment to the right to affordable higher education, as well as a commitment to conditions that create equal access in acceptance and in persistence to a degree.

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