The Great Education Debate

It's that time of year. It's graduation season. Right now, your email is flooded with graduation invitation. Social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, are bombarded with photos of eager college graduates ready to take on the world.

As a recent college graduate, I remember proudly putting on my cap and gown in preparation to receive my bachelor's degree. I recognized that I am now one of the 7 percent of people in the world to attend college. After four long years of hard work and endless studying, I was finally able to claim my degree.

While listening to the commencement speeches given at my ceremony, I began to recognize the larger importance of attaining an education. Simply, education is a gift to be cherished by those who receive the great fortune of receiving it. As a government and politics major, I studied how access to higher education shapes the people's future of graduates. Tragically, the U.S. education system makes higher education a luxury bestowed upon the few and not afforded to the masses.

The opportunity to attend college is a privilege granted to a minute percentage of the larger American population. The Americans that receive some sort of college education results in more young people creating an improved standing in life for themselves and their families. Approximately 30 percent of freshman college entrants are the first members of their families to attend college. The surge of first-generation students attending college is a product of changing views on education. Education is viewed as an essential element of the American dream due to the economic autonomy that accompanies it.

Many first-generation college students endure tremendous financial and personal hardships in their quests to earn a degree. They face immense difficulties navigating elitist college environments and tackling daunting university-level work. A number of these students falter in the face of the intense academic and financial demands of college. Nearly 89 percent of low-income first-generation college students leave college without earning a degree, within six years. These statistics further assert the belief that the system of higher education shuts out the poor, creating a continuing the cycle of poverty. Education should not be a device to suppress those who cannot afford it as opposed to being a vehicle to advance the lives of an elite few.

Despite systematic barriers to education, a great number of first-generation students excel in college. This success is attributable to motivation earned by serving as the first in their family to attend college. This sprit of perseverance is embodied in Willamette University senior, Eli Calixtro. Calixtro is the daughter of Mexican immigrants parents and a father who is illiterate.

When asked about how it felt to be a first-generation college student, Calixtro responded, "I can break the cycle of poverty in which my parents and I grew up. My parents hope for me to be a professional, in their words to have more options than working in the fields if I so choose. It means that I have the opportunity to do what I like which is a privilege my family has never had."

These high achievers represent more than numbers in a study, they serve as an ever-changing face of the millennial generation. The new slew of 2013 college graduates come from different economic, social, and racial backgrounds. The diversity of the college environment challenges notions that higher education is inaccessible to the underrepresented and underprivileged populations. As more first-generation college students enter the classroom, an even larger number of low-income students are shut out of the college system. The great education debate occurs as the notion that higher education has often though to be the great equalizer is continuously contested.

The question remains does further inequality or expand equality?


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