Ideally, education should be free for those who can’t afford it. But with the surge in demand and lack of state funding, college tuition keeps skyrocketing to stratospheric levels that only the privileged can afford. However, this is not the case for developed countries with free college.
For countries like Finland, Norway, and Germany, students don’t have to pay anything at all to take a college degree. While these countries offer the ideal education system all students dream of, numbers are telling of how their free education requires certain sacrifices from both the government and the education sector.
In this post, we compiled crucial data and statistics for an in-depth analysis of the education system in countries with tuition-free colleges and universities.
While the average cost of tuition and fees varies among various universities and colleges, the figures from a survey by US News reveal that in-state tuition prices have grown by 63% in the 12-year period 2008 to 2020. The worst part is that the numbers have no other way to go but up—and experts say state schools still have more room to increase their tuition price.
Somewhere between 1100 and 1200, the first known universities were established in Medieval Europe. In the US, Thomas Jefferson initiated a call for compulsory education to be shouldered by the state. As far back as the early 1800s, universities either had relatively low tuition rates or didn’t charge tuition at all. In the 1970s, tuition started rising because of high interest rates and decreased government funding. Currently, there remains a handful of countries that provide free college education. Below, we listed down some of the countries where college students study for free.
While students from the wealthiest families can easily study in the most expensive universities in the US, for lower-income students, a tuition-free college serves as the only ticket to pursue a bachelor’s degree. However, not every country offers free college education—and those that do tend to have drawbacks in their programs, such as high living costs or limited majors to choose from. To get more acquainted with how tuition-free college education works in other countries, let’s take a look at countries with free college statistics below.
In Germany, all students, regardless of their country of origin, can study for free at all public universities. Top-ranked institutions like the University of Munich and the University of Bonn offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees at no cost. Generally, the only fees required by universities in Germany are administrative fees, which typically cover bus transportation, university facilities, and other student services
Here are some relevant school statistics about free college education in Germany:
There are two kinds of tuition-free universities in Finland: regular public universities and universities of applied sciences. In these institutions, students from EU/EEA countries and Switzerland can take bachelor’s and master’s degrees for free. Likewise, international students can enroll in Finnish and Swedish study programs at no cost. For English-taught degrees, however, the government of Finland requires international students to pay tuition.
The following is a detailed breakdown of the free college education offered in Finland:
In Norway, you can expect to find free bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. programs in public universities. Like Germany, Norway offers these programs to international students, regardless of which country they came from. All students, however, are required to pay a semester fee that typically costs €30 to €60. This covers the student’s health care, transportation, and discounts to cultural events and activities.
Below are some relevant education statistics about Norway’s college system:
Austria is another country that doesn’t require students from Switzerland and other EU/EEA countries to pay tuition. Public universities offer their courses at no cost, but students taking bachelor’s and master’s degrees need to pay the membership fee for the Austrian Student Union, which costs €20. Most international students aren’t so lucky, though, since Austria requires non-EU/EEA students to pay tuition, ranging from €727 to €7,500 for certain courses. But if you’re a student from developing countries, you can find several public universities that offer tuition-free programs.
Here’s what you need to know about the free college education in Austria:
Source: Statistiks Austria (2019)
Now that we know there are still countries out there that provide free college education, the one important question remains: how do countries with free college pay for it?
The simple answer lies in people’s taxes. Take, for example, Germany, which has one of the most inclusive college programs in the world. Its college funds come from relatively high income taxes. Another way to look at this is that “free” college is not at all free since taxpayers are obliged to pay for it.
Recent higher education trends reveal that for countries that prioritize education, a large part of its national budget is allotted to the educational sector. Let’s take a look at some of the statistics below to find out how much other countries spend on higher education:
Elementary/secondary education$85.04 billion
Post-secondary education$69.74 billion
Research programs at universities and related institutions$35.42 billion
Other education$9.56 billion
Source: Digest of Education Statistics (2018)Designed by
The United States is one of the top spenders in education among countries all over the world. It spends roughly $16,268 a year per student, exceeding the OECD average of $10,759. Yet, the money doesn’t seem to reflect on students’ results. Instead, US students are falling behind on basic subjects, such as math, reading, and science, with students from diverse countries outranking them.
However, does free college work well in other countries? Below, we collected various data from different sources for a more in-depth comparison of college in the US vs other countries:
So, does free college work in other countries? To answer that, we’d have to look at three determining factors: the country’s college attainment rates, its education quality, and its funding resources.
Take, for instance, how some countries with free college education maintain their prestige and education quality. They adopt a certain degree of selectivity, allowing them to accept only the most talented and worthy students in their universities. While this helps them keep their elite status, it reflects poorly on their college attainment rates as they end up with fewer college graduates compared to expensive universities with more open enrollment policies.
Another important factor to consider is the country’s funding resources. Most countries with free college education impose higher taxes on its citizens to collect enough funds for their educational expenditures. This means taxpayers will have to shoulder the cost of a country’s entire education system, and for as long as the student population grows, property taxes will keep increasing as well.
Hence, there’s a cloud of uncertainty that surrounds free college models, and most countries are split on their opinions about it. In the US, a 2019 study from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics revealed that 51% of Americans aged between 18 and 29 support tuition-free colleges and universities. This figure is a slight decrease from the same poll that Harvard conducted in the previous year. In 2018, about 56% of the population supported free college.
Source: Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (2019)Designed by
To sum up, a world where education is free for everyone is certainly the dream of many—but realistically, a tuition-free college education system can be a tricky business. Hence, not all countries are up to it. With it comes the risk of certain issues and nuances that some countries are not prepared to deal with.
Potentially lowering a university’s prestige and then imposing higher taxes to fund free college education are only a few of the sacrifices that some countries must make. Not to mention how free colleges could undermine a student’s persistence in finishing a certain degree.
It’s not all bad, though. Free colleges allow lower-income students to have access to higher education without relying entirely on student loans. With a tuition-free college system in place, students also have more freedom to pursue a field that they are interested in, instead of opting for the practical majors that lead to more lucrative post-graduation income.
Of course, education free or not is no guarantee of an easy life. In fact, some graduates could find themselves facing quite a reality check once they’re out of college.
Nevertheless, a free college education could pave the way for aspiring young men and women. For most of them, it’s the finish line after years of keeping tight control of all their shopping budgets.
As of this writing, tuition and fees are still a hot topic of debate for all countries in the world. Whether more countries will follow the tuition-free college models, only time can tell.
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