“Free” Higher Education

I was reading a couple of weeks ago an article discussing some of the benefits and drawbacks of Europe’s model of free or mostly free education for all (of course I now can’t find the article that I was reading to link to for you all). We have this idealized view of having free education for all students, which I agree would be really nice. However, what is the cost of making that change?

One thing about “free” education is that it is not truly free. It may require higher taxes to fund it. There still may be fees associated with going to higher education institutes. I have even heard the argument that just because people might not have to pay for tuition, students still could go into debt for their education because of having to pay for living costs. This is especially the case if a student choses to attend an institution in a city or country in which their family does not reside. Similar to those of us who move great distances in the U.S. to attend the best institution based on our needs and our interests, the move and living independently can be costly.

In the article I read that now can’t be found, a student was saying how with free tuition, institutions were doing all they could to save costs, including having very large lecture classes. We discuss within GEDI about the benefits of hands-on learning and student centered classrooms. Within these large lecture classes and lecture halls in some of these European institutions, who make the decision for financial reasons, are they using some of the techniques that we have been discussing and applied learning?

I did a short period of high school in Germany, where I attended a Gymnasium (one of the academic high schools). One of my clearest memories of the schools was physics. I had already had this particular lesson in my U.S. high school, but I do remember noting a difference in style of giving the lesson. In my U.S. high school, the students were using this toy car within each group to understand the concept. However, in the school I was attending in Germany, we were in a tiered lecture hall with probably close to 50 students and the teacher was demonstrating the concept using the exact same toy car. We could not try it for ourselves. What she said was the lesson. It will be interesting to see how the classrooms and the teaching styles will be similar or different when we visit different institutions in Switzerland and Italy this summer.

Another thing that has been playing on my mind about free education and a primarily public higher education is how much that will limit the types of schools individuals can choose from. Shortly after the announcement of Sweet Briar’s closing, the president of the college, James Jones, said that the “diversity of American higher education…is changing and becoming more vanilla.” In some ways that is becoming true. If schools are not able to hold on financially and students are not able to afford certain institutions, even if they are a better fit for them, we may slowly have only public institutions where everyone is commuting to the campus. What would that mean for diversity initiatives? Would students from diverse and unique backgrounds be able to afford attending unique institutions? If everyone commutes to campus will they truly be exposed to diverse ideas and people by not living with randomly selected people like many of us have when first entering dorm life in college?

I say all this not because I disagree with making higher education more affordable or even “free”. But I think before we hold anything on a pedestal we should look at it critically and see if there may be drawbacks or additional benefits.

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