European college tuition

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(Host) European students have taken to the streets recently to protest tuition increases. Commentator Allen Gilbert compares the situation facing students in Europe to the situation here in the United States.

(Gilbert) Five thousand dollars per year for college tuition? Sounds like a bargain, doesn’t it? Here in the United States it would be. Tuition at public colleges can reach almost $10,000, private colleges almost $30,000.

But in Britain a plan to raise tuition to $5,300 has brought students out into the streets in protest. The amount is about triple what British universities can currently charge.

According to the New York Times, across Europe, countries are grappling with how much to charge students – and in some cases, even whether to charge students. In contrast to the U.S., most European countries have felt university should be like high school and elementary school – the state should pay.

But, increasingly, European countries have found that they just don’t have enough money to pay the bills. So they want students to shoulder more of the costs. Students worry that the increases are just the beginning of higher and higher fees.

And at least one country, France, would like to see greater competition among universities and perhaps even privatization of state-run schools. That idea also brought students out into the streets in protest.

Europeans need only to look at higher education in the U.S. to see what’s probably ahead for them.

At one time a small percentage of U.S. students went on to college. Now about two-thirds do. While that may be laudable from a public policy standpoint, the increased demand has meant that costs have gone up.

The same thing is happening in Europe. More and more students are going on to university. Universities are jammed. There aren’t enough classrooms, enough libraries, enough professors. The universities need to expand, but they don’t have the money.

At the same time, universities have also felt the reach of the global economy. Professors at some top European schools come to the U.S. to teach, partly because the pay is usually higher. And all universities, no matter where they are, have to invest heavily in technology. That’s expensive.

U.S. students graduate from college with an average of about $20,000 in student loans. If they go on to graduate school, the loan amount can grow two, three, or even five times that. And chances are that their parents have a bushel of parent loans to repay, too.

Education policy-makers have noted that it was sometime in the 1970s or 1980s that the U.S. began shifting the cost of a college education into the future. Up until then, families picked up most of the college bill. Grants and scholarships helped to bridge any gaps. Many students got by without loans. Today, nearly every student takes out education loans. While education loans are termed “financial aid,” they’re really a mortgage on students’ future. Graduates are stuck with paying the loans back for years, like a tax.

So the good news for European students is that more of them are going to college. The bad news is that it’s not going to be cheap.

Will a college education bring new opportunities that balance out the increased costs? That’s the big question, especially as a college education becomes the norm – and not the exception. When everyone has a college degree, its competitive advantage may be gone.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU.

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