How students in other countries are (not) paying for college
By Briana Shemroske
Michael Schmeiser and Jonathan Brackenier have a few things in common: both are university students who will earn their bachelor’s degree in three years. The entrance fee for admittance into their respective universities is less than the equivalent of 1,000 U.S. dollars. Classes are set according to their chosen timetable and attendance to class is lenient; time spent out of class diligently reading is common.
Schmeiser attends college in Vienna, Austria, studying at two different universities: the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration and the University of Vienna. He studies classes in language, economics, business and law and will earn a degree in International Development.
Brackenier is a second year student at the University of Ghent, in Ghent, Belgium, working on a pre-law degree.
Schmeiser and Brackenier are just two of many in the European university system — a system that is very divergent from the American university system. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Rothenberg spent two semesters teaching at University of Art and Design Helsinki, where students learn at their own pace, turn in projects when they have time and no professor is allowed to fail a student for not completing work.
To Americans this structure of college may seem absurd. Such leniency at the university level is unfamiliar. We are accustomed to a fast-paced, often one-track mindset: Get in, get out, get rich. But in this process, most students are acquiring vast amounts of debt and are left wondering what it is they really came to university to learn.
To enter university in Austria, students first must pass the Matura: a final exam in all subjects. “Normally everybody can go to university if he/she has their Matura,” Schmeiser says. “You choose to be tested in seven different subjects, and must be positive in every one of them in order to be admitted to university.” Although strenuous, once students prove their work ethic and desire, they’re accepted.
“You mostly don’t have to apply to university, unless you plan to study medicine because it is very popular and they only want to admit the best students,” Schmeiser explains.
According to Rothenberg, the Finland higher educational system is similar. After general secondary school, the student is required to take a national “Matriculation Exam.” Eligibility for university depends upon this. “The more prestigious universities and art schools, such as the one where I taught, are very hard to get into, but once you’re in, you’re in. And of course, students do not have to pay to go to school.”
Brackenier contrasts the system in Belgium, “Anyone with a diploma from a secondary school, or high school, can apply for college,” he says. “And once you’re in, university costs €540 (687.58 USD) a year.” Any student with a diploma is qualified to freely enroll in an institution of their choice.
While American students plummet into debt, students in countries such as Austria and Finland are handed government stipends for their educations. “The first part of a bachelor’s degree takes one year, and the second, two years,” Schmeiser adds, “If it takes a student longer than this, the government will stop the funding. They want to make sure you are studying as fast as possible.” Students are motivated to do their best and to do it efficiently. The government trusts that students will use the stipend to full advantage.
The Austrian government even lowers the cost to attend university for one semester from €370, to absolutely nothing. When I explained to a friend in Austria the price of attending an American university, he said: “But you will spend your whole life paying this off?” To these countries, “education is both a right and a privilege,” says Rothenberg. To him, paying thousands of dollars to be educated, informed and prepared seems unimaginable.
Buzzsaw’s adviser, Jeff Cohen, also a journalism professor and director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, spent years touring both nationally and internationally and giving lectures to college age students. “What I would hear constantly from recent grads in the U.S., especially from those in law, medical or even business fields was that they would go to a corporate law firm after school to pay off their loans, and then later take their skill to serve the people. You would never hear this in Europe. Once they’re in the system, that later may never come,” he says, “That’s the tragedy.”
A bachelor’s degree is no longer enough in our sinking economy, especially when young adults are stepping out of college slumped with debt. On top of this, American universities are becoming increasingly difficult to enter. According to Collegeadmisioninfo.com, more and more high school grads are applying to college; establishments such as Harvard University saw a 19% increase in applicants. As this escalates, acceptance rates will only fall.
But what about those who have the passion for education and not the eye-catching exterior of high test scores and perfect grades? It’s becoming progressively apparent that in the United States, a strong education–despite it’s constant encouragement and admiration as a concept — as a reality, is a mere privilege. And a hard to come by privilege, at that.
While Cohen spent a year traveling Europe in the ’80s, he met a Swedish student studying physical therapy at a university in Berlin. “I asked how she could afford to live in Berlin. She looked at me like I was a moron. And she said to me, ‘In my area of physical therapy, the best school in the world is in Berlin, so my government pays for my tuition. Because after I graduate, I’ll use my skills back in Sweden.'”
Unfortunately, most American students do not have the luxury of a cheap education.
Rothenberg says, “I admire the Finns for the value they place on education, and for their insistence that education is a right and must remain accessible to all.”
Because of its accessibility, a real fervor and gratitude for education are formed. “I study not only because I am interested in the subject,” says Schmeiser, “but because I am not satisfied with how the global system is constructed, and I want to understand the world, I want to change it.”
Perhaps education shouldn’t be a luxury at all.
Briana Shemroske is a freshman journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.