High school students from single-mother households are giving up on higher education, according to a recent poll by Ashinaga, an NPO providing financial support to children who have lost one or both of their parents. Rather than pursue their dreams of education, over 40 percent are going to work instead. The overwhelming reason is financial. Though a few scholarships are available from organizations like Ashinaga, the number who must give up higher education because of “living hardships” is at the highest level in decades. Since women and mothers are often the first to be laid off when companies downsize, these numbers will increase. Japan’s higher education system may soon be accessible only to those students with enough money, regardless of talent, ambition or diligence.

The numbers of these students is large: In March, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry reported that 1 million single Japanese mothers receive government allowances to supplement low incomes. Not every high school student wants to pursue higher education, but most do: They should be given the opportunity regardless of their financial circumstances.

Education is one of the pillars of Japanese democracy, offering citizens a chance to both improve themselves and contribute to society. When the hope of higher education depends first and foremost on one’s bank account, the basic promise of democracy is seriously weakened. As the youth demographic shrinks, Japan cannot afford to let potentially good students fall out of the system. University, technical or vocational study not only benefits students personally, it also raises Japan’s overall educational level in an increasingly competitive world economy.

The government should increase financial support for all students in need, but especially for those most in need. Investment in education pays high dividends, for individuals and for society. Student grants, loans and scholarships are an essential investment in Japan’s very near future.

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