At a recent departmental meeting, a math professor mentioned that several of his students would not be able to buy the graphing calculator usually required for Algebra and/or Calculus. He said they were too poor. Our department chair countered with his own observation that they all have smart phones and fancy shoes, and therefore should be able to buy a graphing calculator.
I agreed loudly, "Yeah," because I tend to be a bit unsympathetic.
The other professor got a bit agitated (not really, he's not an aggressive guy, but he was trying to make a point) and explained that many of his students are really, honest to goodness poor, and they can't afford anything. Another professor corroborated with her own account of purchasing online access for students who don't have credit cards. She is reimbursed in cash. This started a moderate debate (it was mostly a discussion, we're not a debate crowd) about the cost of education and the slow turnaround time of the financial aid packages.
Education costs money. So I guess the sticking point would be, "Is education a privilege or a right?" I tend to think it's a privilege, and therefore it's the student's responsibility to get the materials. But if you believe that all people have a right to a college education, our financial aid strategy may need a complete overhaul. The current financial aid packages are insufficient to provide everyone with everything that they need when they need it. Is it unfair to ask a biology student to purchase access to a website? Is requiring a calculator for math going too far? Where do you draw the line?
The conversation (as I said, all my colleagues are incredibly polite and kind and therefore would never actually yell or argue) got me to thinking about WHY I feel the way I do about college being a privilege. It's probably because I am not a child of privilege, and every penny I scraped together was used to buy books and calculators and lab materials. Many sacrifices were made in the name of my education, sacrifices that would not be necessary if college were a fundamental right.
My father was unemployed for all of the nineties and for some of the decades on either side. My mother is a teacher's aide. My younger brother was still at home when I left for college, and my parents took in a friend of his who was homeless at the time. So, it was a 1:1 exchange of mouths to feed. We had a house, and we had food, so I wasn't going to squabble over tuition or books. I paid my own way through college - I chose the college that gave me the most financial aid. It happened to be a small private college in Michigan that I could never have afforded otherwise. I took a full load and had up to 4 jobs per semester. I didn't have a car. I didn't have an apartment. There was one year when I didn't even have a winter coat. But I had my damn calculator.
What I fail to appreciate, I suppose, is that my family was supportive. They couldn't give me money, but they were behind me, 100%. There are four college degrees in my family, and I have three of them. I didn't have to pay for daycare or take care of an ailing grandmother. I didn't have a husband or a mortgage payment. I lived on campus to reduce costs, but if I'd had children I wouldn't have been eligible for student housing. My situation, while pathetic at times, was my own. And I need to start realizing that these students have their own real problems, too. And many of them are trying, really really hard.
Is education a right, or a privilege?
ETA: I just discovered that The Chronicle of Higher Education is debating this very same thing.