STUMP » Articles » Free College! If You Can Get In. » 12 February 2016, 19:16

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Free College! If You Can Get In.  


12 February 2016, 19:16

Charlie Martin shared this image on facebook:

Looks like it was originally from a group called “Union Thugs”.

And while I’m going to ignore the specific stupid argument (For one, I don’t teach classes for free, even if I do teach them for cheap.….I’m more expensive than an XBox, though, even on a per-student basis), I thought I’d address one of the arguments I’ve heard from various “I DON’T WANT TO PAY MY STUDENT LOANS DAMMIT” crowd:

Other, very enlightened, countries provide university education for free… why can’t we?!

Hell, even Brazil and Mexico do it on the cheap!


Now, I graduated undergrad 20 years ago, and I know college costs and competition has changed in that time. But the scholarships I received (that paid me to go to college) are still around (I know, because I’ve donated to perpetuating at least one of them).

So, kiddies — free university education is still available!

Did I mention I was on the U.S. Physics Olympiad training team (the 20 for the training session, not the 5 that went to Finland in 1992), had a 1540 (or maybe 1560, I forget) SAT score (that was out of 1600, mind you, and before they made it “easy”), took calculus in 10th grade, got various awards, yadda yadda yadda. I don’t remember it all, so luckily I wrote it down at one point and captured it. Oh right, I forgot the perfect PSAT score. I do remember the B from 6th grade in English for conduct: I talked too much.

I still do.

So maybe you’re saying “Well, hey — of course if you’ve got super-high academic accomplishments and go to a state school you can get a full ride… but that’s not me!”

Well, guess what, sparky: in those countries of “free university”, much fewer people get degrees than in the U.S. It may be free, but it’s harder to get in. You want that system?


Let’s back it up with some stats, eh? From an official governmental source, even — the OECD.

I downloaded the data of percentage of those age 25-34 with tertiary degrees. The USA was #11 out of 37 on the list, at about 45% of the population. That sounds a little high to me, actually.

The description at the site says:

Definition of
Population with tertiary education

Population with tertiary education is defined as those having completed the highest level of education, by age group. This includes both theoretical programmes leading to advanced research or high skill professions such as medicine and more vocational programmes leading to the labour market. The measure is percentage of same age population. As globalisation and technology continue to re-shape the needs of labour markets worldwide, the demand for individuals with a broader knowledge base and more specialised skills continues to rise.

That obviously doesn’t mean doctorate degrees, but I could see it meaning 2-year degrees in addition to 4-year bachelor’s degrees. Whatever.

The 10 countries above the U.S. and their percentages:

1 South Korea 67.1%
2 Japan 58.4%
3 Canada 57.8%
4 Ireland 51.1%
5 Great Britain 48.3%
6 Luxembourg 48.1%
7 Norway 46.6%
8 Austria 45.7%
9 Israel 44.8%
10 Sweden 44.8%

We’re basically a hair below Sweden, btw, and you can see there’s a lot of clustering there. I would say the top 4 are really a lot higher than the U.S. — South Korea, Japan, Canada, and Ireland.

I checked those 4. Only Ireland has free university among those four.

Oh wait, it’s not totally free:

Under the “Free Fees Initiative” the Exchequer will pay the tuition fees of students who meet relevant course, nationality and residence requirements as set down under the initiative. These requirements include:5

-Holding EU nationality, or are a national of member country of the European Economic Area or Switzerland, or those who have been granted official refugee status.

-Having been a resident in an EU Member State for at least three of the five years preceding entry to the course.

-Are not undertaking a second undergraduate course.

Students are required to pay a “registration fee” on entry to their courses. These charges cover costs such as equipment usage, administration fees and exam fees. Charges for 2008/09 were on average €850 per student, but was raised to €1,500 per student for the 2009/10 school year.6 These charges have been labelled as “unofficial fees”, and University Heads have admitted that “student registration charges are fees by any other name”.7 In 2011, after large annual increases, the Registration Fee was abolished and replaced with a Student Contribution. For the school year 2014/2015 this fee stands at €2,750, with plans to raise it to €3,000 by 2015. The fee for the school year 2015/2016 will be €3,000.

€3,000 is currently equivalent to $3.4K, approximately. It’s not huge, but it’s not zero.

By the way, the average personal income in Ireland is about €21K per capita.

Just a note: per capita income in the U.S. is about $42K.

Just to compare things, you see.


So I decided to go looking for “free” university.

I found this list from Salon:

1. Brazil: Brazil’s universities charge registration fees, Noack notes, but they do not require regular tuition. Many of them also offer courses in English.

2. Germany: Germany has 900 programs in English, and is eager to attract foreign students to tuition-free universities due to the country’s shortage of skilled workers.

3. Finland: Finland doesn’t have tuition fees but the government does warn foreigners that they have to cover living expenses. Imagine going to college and only worrying about room and board.

4. France: France does charge tuition – but normally around 200 dollars at public universities. A far cry from what you’d pay in the United States, even in a state school.

5. Norway: Norwegian students, including foreigners studying in the country, do not have to pay any college tuition. Be forewarned, however, of the harsh winters and high cost of living.

6. Slovenia: If Eastern Europe is more your thing, Noack notes that Slovenia has 150 English-language programs, and only charges a registration fee – no tuition.

7. Sweden: Sweden, a country which has so successfully solved so many of its social problems that there are now U.S. Sitcoms about the glories of moving there, has over 300 English-language programs. Although college there is free, cost of living may be pricey for foreigners.

Let’s compare degree-holding stats, shall we? I’ll take the 7 countries and throw in the U.S. for easy comparison.

Norway 46.6%
Sweden 44.8%
United States 44.8%
France 44.1%
Finland 40.0%
Slovenia 37.4%
Germany 30.0%
Brazil 15.3%

Hmmm. Some of those countries have much lower degree-holding percentages.

By the way, I don’t want to dissuade American students from studying abroad. Going to one of these other countries for undergrad, at least for a few semesters, may be really good. I had my own short stint in Japan (Thanks to the NC Japan Center for the scholarship!), and found it really enlightening. Really.

But my point is that in many of these countries, they can provide “free” university because not everybody goes.

Also, note all the warnings about the high cost of living in the above.


Most people (in the U.S.) can get into college, because most colleges are non-selective. Pick a solid state school, search for scholarships of any sort, live on ramen (it won’t kill you… at least, it didn’t kill me), and try to get as many credits as possible before you get into college.

There are a couple ways to do this:

- AP tests (which I used a lot)
- CLEP tests
- Credit by exam, and other workarounds, depending on the college

Let me explain the last one, which my mom told me about. Not sure how she knew about it, but maybe she did it herself because she got through college faster than normal.

In some colleges, you can get credit for a class by passing the final exam, but not have to pay for the credits. I did this with one class — Introduction to Statistics. I had taught myself the subject through a high school internship and didn’t feel like taking the class over again. I had to argue with the dean and pull out the student handbook to show him, but there it was — credit by final exam. So I took the final exam with everybody else (I got a 96) and didn’t have to waste my time with a class.

There are loads of free online classes currently, but I haven’t heard of many that transfer over to official college credit. That said, if you actually learn and know the material, you may not find it difficult to pass a final exam for standard courses.

To be more realistic, given I currently teach at a college and have taught required math classes at a variety of colleges, I know a lot of people do not necessarily look upon taking a class as learning a topic for long-term purposes. They just want the credit, and don’t particularly want to take that class.

My understanding is that some foreign approaches to college education are that you take classes only in your degree subject, unlike the American model with broad distribution requirements. But I could be wrong about that. But you may as well look into it if you’re so lazy you don’t want to take the trouble to learn introduction to statistics.

(Learn statistics, dammit! Here’s a free course. Here’s another. There are loads.)

Anyway, if you already know the material, there are loads of ways to prove your knowledge for relatively cheaply and you should do that rather than sit in a class.

Farting around in college is really expensive, not only in money spent on tuition and fees, but also opportunity cost.

I don’t have too much sympathy for those who “have” to go to a boutique private college that costs more than any car I’ve ever bought per year. That’s a luxury. I’m not going to pay for a spoiled brat’s luxury, especially if the kid’s parent isn’t all that interested in subsidizing an upscale lifestyle.