No, College Is Not “Free” in Europe – It’s Expensive and Broken

 August 28, 2019

The rising cost of college in America is no longer a "concern" - it's a crisis.

Student debt in the US now totals $1.5 trillion and growing. More than 44 million Americans have outstanding student debt. And 1 in 5 Millenials expect to die without paying off their debt.

Proposals such as student loan forgiveness and other solutions to rising cost and resulting student debt have been gaining national attention, and it seems unlikely that the trend will stop. 

An oft-referenced example of cost mitigation has been the so-called “free” college programs of European countries. 

As Milton Friedman liked to say, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

That fact that someone always must pay for it aside, there are many reasons to believe that free college isn’t the dream it is made out to be.

Bearing the Cost

College, of course, must always be paid for in the end. The taxpayers must be the ones who pay if students are no longer expected to. 

As you might expect, the tax burden is significantly higher in countries that offer free college.

This means that graduates will be paying for their education for the rest of their lives, not just until their loans are repaid.

But it’s not just students that will be paying. Everyone, including those without college degrees, are supporting these students. 

While some might see this as a good thing, it’s not voluntary. People are forced to pay these costs, and those who don’t benefit are required to pay just as much as those who do.

You Get What You Pay For

When Americans think of free college, we usually picture American colleges without the tuition payments or student loans. The reality, however, may be bleaker.

Germany, one of the most prominent countries offering free college, suffers from overcrowded universities that can’t afford to teach students

These schools don’t have anything close to the resources of colleges in the U.S. The difference? Inability to charge tuition. 

Students get neither the experience nor level of education that a tuition-charging institution provides. Class sizes of 1,500 are not unheard of.

Paying for school helps to both provide necessary resources to make schools better, and to motivate schools to retain students and provide them with a good overall value proposition. 

Getting a Loan for Free Education

While tuition may be totally waived in many European countries, related expenses (rent, food, transportation, etc.) can still make life costly for students. 

Case in point, Sweden, a country with completely free tuition, sees its students graduate with a higher debt-to-income ratio than American students.

That's right - despite the supposed benefits of free college, students in Sweden manage to accumulate more debt proportional to their income than their American counterparts.

The cost of living in many “tuition-free countries” is also much higher, in no small part due to the enormous tax burden of social programs - including free college. 

The very thing that attracts students to tuition-free schools drives them into embracing debt as well. 

Even when supported by taxpayers, free tuition doesn’t mean that students can live for free while they seek their degree. The costs of ensuring that would be truly astronomical.

“Free” without Freedom

The European college model differs not only in price, but also flexibility. In the U.S., college is a place where students can explore their interests and decide what they want to study. 

By contrast, European schools require students to know exactly what they want to do up front, and they do not offer general education courses or work on developing any non-career focused knowledge. 

This inflexibility is problematic for students who want more control over their education, or who aren’t ready to commit to a specific career for the rest of their lives. 

Additionally, many European students are also unable to study in a field of their choice. In France, for instance, testing at age 15 determines what children will be allowed to study in college.

Individual choice is a casualty of this program, and children who are unprepared at the age of 15 may have avenues closed to them forever.

Gatekeeping in this manner is one way in which universities that are prevented from charging tuition can attempt to keep costs within their grasp. It is not victimless, however.

Using tests or other such measures to keep students from pursuing their career goals is in many ways harsher than simply charging tuition. 

In the United States, those faced with costs have a variety of options available to them. Student loans are ubiquitous and easy to apply for. Scholarships are plentiful, and federal grants can help those from less privileged backgrounds.

In a tuition-free society, draconian strategies are often made necessary, and the resulting decrease in flexibility for students has no such ready recourse. 

Lower Costs, Fewer Graduates

The aforementioned gatekeeping strategies have more consequences than simply denying student choice in regard to their careers. 

There are no incentives to retain students; conversely, reducing the number of free students is a desirable outcome for schools, and something they make no effort to avoid. 

It is telling that countries with free tuition tend to rank poorly in college degree attainment. Low costs are not enough to ensure everyone who wants an education gets it. 

This incentive problem is a key distinction between colleges in the U.S. and those in Europe. 

American schools have the resources and, equally importantly, the will to attract students and provide them with a quality education. 

This is reflected by class sizes, emphasis on developing students, activities and health programs, and individualized attention.

A Lesson in Value

Everything boils down to the simple truth that nothing is truly free. Even without express tuition costs, students must pay to attend college, often in ways they don’t expect and that will burden them for longer.

“Eliminating” the cost of college is no magic bullet that will stop issues of student debt and turn our country into a utopia. Rather, there are pros and cons to everything, and the problems with free college are all too real:

Reducing the cost of college is a worthy goal, but measures like reducing federal involvement, encouraging competition among schools, and rewarding universities that provide the best value are better overall tactics than furthering government involvement with tuition elimination.

About the Author

Timothy Sears is a graduate of Sam Houston State University, where he studied economics, political science, and philosophy. He is currently a part-time Blackhawk pilot and is pursuing further education in psychology.

About Timothy Sears

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