Stine Dahlberg: A shift in tuition thinking is possible

Can you imagine a highly competitive higher education system without tuition fees, a university with free access for everyone? The thought might be farfetched around Foggy Bottom, but it is the reality in my homeland of Scandinavia, where tuition is free for all students.

I am hardly suggesting that you pack your bags, wave goodbye to America and move across the pond, even though some European universities are free for foreigners. I am merely highlighting an interesting contrast to the American tuition system. Perhaps the States could even take a page out of the European book and adopt some changes to make the extremely expensive system here a bit more affordable.

Charging for education always directly discriminates against lower-income students. Financial aid and institutional support, however, are used to counterbalance these aspects. Today this backup seems to be failing in America; it’s true that more poor students go to college today than did a decade ago, but they have yet to reach the levels that high-income students were at three decades ago. An August 2006 report published by the Education Trust pointed out that by age 24, 75 percent of students from the top income quartile have a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 9 percent of those from the lower parts of the spectrum.

Some may choose to blame an inadequate high school system for these issues, but the reasons behind the painstakingly slow progress are much more complex. The problem constitutes a mix between a high tuition system, federal- and state-government policy, as well as the individual aid given out by colleges.

Tuition fees for American colleges have risen consistently without relation to either national income levels or inflation. According to the report, relative to inflation, national household income has only marginally increased, while the average four-year college tuition has rocketed up 200 percent since the 1980s. Federal and state government policy has been slow to catch on, and now manifests itself as a complicated and ineffective loan system. Furthermore, a much lower percentage of today’s loans are allocated specifically for those who would not be able to go to college at all, while the amount going to middle-income families has risen to respond to increasing tuition.

The Education Trust report also suggests that universities themselves have been more bothered about achieving high rankings and a shiny image than ensuring that more low-income students enroll and complete their degree. One sign of this is tuition discounting, which at first glance can sound like a welcomed help. However, when making a decision to attend a specific college, a student cannot always be certain that he or she will receive tuition discounting. This is a daunting possibility that certainly affects a student’s options, and even the choice whether to go to college at all.

With the steep increase in tuition, it is important to help everyone as much as possible, particularly as it of whether becomes nearly impossible to succeed in many professions without a degree. This may be more difficult as our current system grows, however. Perhaps a good solution may come from abroad.

The most renowned Scandinavian universities are public, free of charge and ranked among the best in Europe and in the world. Sweden and Norway fund universities and a substantial student loan and grant for everyone from the income taxes they collect, taxes that can be as high as 50 percent. The Danish government even pays a form of salary to their university students.

For me, this represents a utopian university; one that provides excellent merit-based education for everyone, regardless of geographical conditions, age, sex or economical or social position. The crux of this system, which is extremely effective in producing well-educated men and women, is the idea that everyone ought to pay into a University system. Unfortunately, the political climate in America is different.

The problem is that American universities are excellent institutions, but they were not built to be free. Unfortunately, it will take a shift in the mindset of Americans before everyone starts putting money into a system that can be much more effective in providing equitable educational opportunities.

The situtation may seem impossible to overcome, however, but I wanted to point out that it can be done. I know public higher education has not been been an American tradition, but perhaps a shift in the mindset would benefit the United States education system and the nation overall.

-The writer is a junior majoring in international affairs.

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