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Here Are The Countries Where University Is Essentially Free
Accessible education is fundamental to real prosperity
Accessible education is fundamental to real prosperity
While America strangles its best and brightest with $1.53 trillion in unbankruptable education loans, while Canadian kids shoulder at least $22 billion and rapidly climbing, while British students struggle to pay back $130 billion, students across the rest of Europe are laughing:
In Germany, higher ed at state institutions is free to all students regardless of nationality. Same in Norway. Same in Iceland.
University in Poland is free for all EU students. Same in Slovenia.
Austria gives any EU student two free semesters, then charges a whopping $427 per semester going forward.
A bachelor’s degree is free in Greece.
A bachelor’s degree in France will set you back $201 per year.
Yet right-wing extremists cannot fathom a world in which we extend public investment in education right through to graduation day.
Free university is impossible!
It was once thought absurd for nations to pay to send children to school.
The first publically-funded kindergarten didn’t show up in America until 1873. Yet today no one debates whether or not it’s a good idea to educate kids from ages five to seventeen. Of course it is.
Let’s not forget that corporatists have always balked at commons-improving ideas:
They opposed the abolition of slavery.
They opposed the abolition of child labor.
They opposed the abolition of fourteen-hour days.
They opposed the abolition of seven-day workweeks.
They opposed paid overtime.
They minimum wage and still oppose increasing it from an appalling $7.25.
They still oppose collective bargaining.
They still oppose democracy.
Yet public investment in education is mathematically one of the best ways we can spend our collective money.
Unlike corrupt college admissions departments that have snuck in untold thousands of undeserving rich kids throughout history, philosophers from Socrates onward have advocated for free public education for all.
“We must give to every child full equality of educational opportunity; there is no telling where the light of talent or genius will break out; we must seek it impartially everywhere, in every rank and race. The first turn on our road is universal education.” — Will Durant
Someday this won’t be seen as a radical notion: Societies should invest in post-secondary education if they want to become true meritocracies.
Free university is expensive!
No, it’s not. The key is to stop thinking like an individualist American.
Consider healthcare. Americans pay more than double per capita than Canadians or Brits, yet 40,000 Americans die annually from lack of healthcare coverage and another 500,000 declare bankruptcy from medical bills every single year. Which system costs society more?
It’s the same with education.
At the post-secondary level, America spends 93% more money per student than the OECD average. That’s right — it costs $30,000 per American student, versus $16,100 for students across Finland, France, etc. Their students finish university, get a job, and invest and spend their income into the productive economy instead of enriching corrupt bankers who further rig the game. Which system costs society more?
If America acted a little less individualistic and corporatist, it could chop the price of post-secondary education in half — meaning we could educate twice as many students for the same cost.
Make universities teach again
Another key — and this is a really radical one — is to make universities actually focus on education. Let’s face it: Many of America’s universities are essentially theme parks for frat boys and sorority girls. Some have waterslides. Some have golf courses. They all have football stadiums. And while all of this is fun, it has nothing to do with educating students.
Ever heard of Tapping Reeve? He built America’s first law school in his backyard. It’s a 20 x 20 wooden room — I’ve visited it — with zero watersides in sight. He charged a small tuition and got local families to board his students. He used a series of lectures, case studies, and mock trials to get his points across, and his teaching methods have become standard practice in law schools to this very day. In that little room, Reeve trained more than 1,100 students including two vice presidents, several Supreme Court justices, congressmen, senators, judges, and businessmen, many of whom helped guide and shape the new American nation.
We need that kind of education again.
Let’s do the math
Even if we didn’t go Tapping-Reeve-minimalist, at $20,000 to educate a student through university it would cost around $400 billion to fund free post-secondary for 20 million students.
It’s roughly what the military spends every six months. (Oddly enough, the military understands the need for education — that’s why it pays for post-secondary for all its people.)
And let’s not forget that paying for post-secondary education is essentially an investment in upgrading a taxpayer into a new tax bracket.
On average, college graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime. At the current 22% personal income tax bracket, that’s an extra $220,000 in public funding.
Every dollar invested in post-secondary education creates a $13+ return for the commons. How are we not making that investment all day every day?
Make America smart again
It should be pretty obvious to anyone who isn’t a sociopath what we should do next:
Invest in free public education from kindergarten through post-grad. (If that’s too scary, start with free med school — flood the market with doctors and drive the cost of healthcare through the floor.)
Declare a student debt jubilee and erase all $1.53 trillion. We can’t afford to choke the life out of any more people with this fake paper credit noose. Every after-tax working dollar that’s delivered to an extractor-banker is time stolen from a real contributor.
Force private universities to spend an aggressively higher portion of their endowments each year. In Canada, the tax code requires endowments to spend 4% of their fund each year. That number could easily be tripled so universities don’t just horde wealth that should be invested in education. Right now, American universities are sitting Smaug-like on half a trillion dollars that should be spent on education.
Invest heavily in re-building our apprenticeship system. The best university might just be the school of life and real-world practice.
We talk a big game about racial equality and gender equality and equality of opportunity, but we’re missing the easiest alley-oop slam dunk of all time: the meritocracy that is the university system. Let everyone in, see who rises, then unleash them to contribute their best selves to a world in need.
This is how we make America smart again.
In praise of the status quo
When improvements this obvious remain undone for so long, I always ask myself the same question: Who profits from keeping things exactly the way they are?
If our goal is to have an ignorant population where more people are systemically forced into bankruptcy each year than graduate from college… then keep things the way they are.
If our goal is to load our youth with a massive burden of debt that they will carry for decades to come… then keep things the way they are.
If our goal is to make the rich richer and keep the poor poorer by keeping them from widening their horizons of opportunity… then keep things the way they are.
If our goal is to keep elites and their offspring in power even if others have far more merit to lead… then keep things the way they are.
If our goal is to leave our children so ill-equipped for the digital future that they’ll desperately take any gig job that’s available… then keep things the way they are.
Come to think of it — keeping the population ignorant and weighed down with crippling debt and looming bankruptcy, desperate to work for less than they’re worth in an anti-meritocratic economy really does seem like the American way.
Maybe we shouldn’t make university free after all.
It might just make people free.