Right now there is a debate in the NY Times on the cost of public higher education with some, including Sara Goldrick-Rab, arguing that public higher education should be universal and free. Amongst Goldrick-Rab’s arguments is that free universal education would help students from lower socio-economic backgrounds focus on learning.
I couldn’t agree more. And, having just returned from a service-learning experience in Mexico, I would add another important point to the list: the cost of higher education in the U.S. limits our students’ access to intercultural exchange. This happens in two ways: first, in countries where higher education is highly subsidized by the government (Norway, France, and, yes, Mexico), students have little opportunity -- or interest -- in spending time studying abroad in the U.S. unless they come from a financially well-off family. Similarly, this means that those international students who come to the U.S. to study for four years tend to be from a certain (high) socio-economic background thus, though U.S. students may be exposed to students from different cultures, the range of experiences is limited.
Second, on our end of things, the cost of higher education in this country prevents our students -- especially students of color and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds -- from studying abroad, given the fact that they are already in debt and the (often higher) cost of studying abroad can be daunting. It should be noted here that the exchange I refer to above and below was fully-funded through alumni donations, allowing students who would otherwise not have been able to travel abroad the opportunity to do so.
Having recently witnessed the power of cultural exchange, when students from my large public institution interacted with students at a large Mexican public institution, I can assure you that this is no small point in the bigger higher education picture. We need to move beyond touting “global citizenship” in strategic plans and university mission statements, while limiting it in practice through structures that prevent students from experiencing intercultural exchange. Students in the U.S. and abroad benefit greatly from intercultural exchange, and we do everyone a disservice when we structure our universities in ways that stifle it.
Gwendolyn Beetham is the Director of the Global Village at Douglass Residential College, the women’s college at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She is also the Assistant Editor of University of Venus, a Member-at-Large for the National Women’s Studies Association, and a 2015-2016 seminar fellow at Rutgers’ Institute for Research on Women.
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