Higher education in the United Status, despite private scholarships and federally subsidized grants and loans, systematically excludes those from lower socioeconomic classes. From great disparities in the quality of public primary and secondary education to unbelievably high tuition prices, those whose families are not able to pay for their education often are forced to go straight into the work force. Even public higher education in the United States works to reinforce social classes rather than promote income equality.
Venezuela seems to have found a solution to this perpetuation of the inequitable distribution of wealth and power. Education is guaranteed as a right in the Venezuelan Constitution; "Education is a human right, a fundamental social right. It will be free, democratic, and mandatory…Every person will have access to an education…of equal quality and providing equal opportunity."
In the Venezuelan system of higher education, tuition is free for all, as are housing, transportation, and meals in an attempt to make higher education inclusive and accessible for all sectors of the population. In addition, a host of social programs have been implemented to improve the quality and accessibility of the Venezuelan education system as a whole.
Mission Simoncito fosters early education and brain development through providing free comprehensive day care and preschool to students aged 1-6, helping to ensure that all students are ready to start school.
Mission Robinson works to improve adult literacy, and Mission Ribas provides primary and secondary education to adults who dropped out of school. Mission Sucre brings university professors to smaller cities and towns to make college accessible for those with families to care for. In the next three years, 29 new universities, traditional and vocational, will be built in an effort to accommodate the large inﬂux of students coming from the improved educational system.
These programs have formed a network that has nearly eradicated illiteracy in Venezuela. They have also contributed to the accessibility of higher education, with the number of students graduating public universities each year soaring from 172,432 in 1998 to 504,958 in 2007. In addition, it is estimated that over 70% of the new students entering Venezuela's university system come from families living below the poverty line.
Venezuelan students are also obligated to give back to their communities. As part of a new graduation requirement, students must complete 120 hours of community service in a ﬁeld related to their major. The hope is that this will bridge the social gap between university students and their communities to create an ethic of compassion and involvement.
Julia, a student at la Universidad de los Andes in Mérida, was inspired to volunteer at Mission Robinson after witnessing the sheer joy her grandmother felt when the program taught her to read;
"My grandmother said she felt like a whole new world was opened up to her…The ﬁrst book she read was the 1999 constitution she helped to ratify. In my work I get to bring that kind of power to people."
As a university student in the United States, I would love to see our system of higher education adopt any one of these changes. Due to budget cuts in the state of Washington, tuition at The Evergreen State College, the public school I attend, will go up thirty percent over the next two years, excluding even more low and middle- income students from attending.
We can either allow this global ﬁnancial crisis to perpetuate the current inequitable distribution of wealth, or we can learn from the positive examples countries such as Venezuela present and move towards an ethic of community collaboration where education is a right for all rather than a privilege only a few are able to enjoy.