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Why doesn’t the United States do what Europe does when it comes to students and college? Why isn’t a college education free?

Fall is here. That means many things are on their way down, including bank accounts as parents write tuition checks.  Is anything going up? Maybe interest in “free” college. How often are we told by our friends on the left that we ought to follow the lead of Europe, specifically western Europe?  Pretty often, by my reckoning. In the waning years of my teaching days a student raised that very matter on the first day of class.

Obviously, it was much too early in our teacher-student relationship for me to know anything about his politics—or for him to know anything about mine. (Actually, mine were always kept to myself from the first day of class to the last.)  But he soon proved himself to be very much a young man on the left. As time went by, he also demonstrated that he was a very solid student, a polite and engaging young man, and a valuable member of the class.

So just what was his question? First a bit of context. As a community college instructor of American history, I would generally spent a few minutes of the opening class day congratulating my students on choosing a community college for their general education course work. College has become all too expensive, and they had selected the least expensive route to their degree.

OK, a community college lacks a residential setting. In all likelihood it also means delaying that inevitable separation from mom and dad. Classes do tend to be larger than in private four-year colleges. And four years in one place can better cement lifelong friendships.  But four-year residential private colleges are anything but cheap!

Then there are the large public universities where introductory survey classes are essentially turned over to teaching assistants. At a community college we may be teachers, not professors, but we give the lectures, run the discussion groups, and grade the exams and papers. All in all, it’s a better deal at half the price.

At this point there was no need for any sort of sales pitch on my part. The students before me had already paid their tuition and found their way to class.  But it was my experience that too many of my students were a bit embarrassed to be attending a community college. This was my way of letting them know that there was no need for any of that.

So… what was THE question? Here it is: Why doesn’t the United States do what Europe does when it comes to students and college? Why isn’t a college education free? Ah, the Bernie Sanders answer right there in the classroom.

For one of the few times in my teaching life I thought of the right answer right then, as opposed to a week later. OK, I replied, let’s do things the way Europe does them. For starters, that would mean that community colleges wouldn’t exist. It would also mean that by the age of about fourteen one’s educational future would have been plotted out. Test scores would determine your placement. You would be tracked for vocational training or more advanced learning, or some place in between. And that would be that.

Do western European countries pay for EVERYONE to go to college? Hardly. Only the few are chosen—or selected—or culled. Choose your verb. We do things differently here. There are highly selective schools. There are mildly selective schools. And there are open door schools. In addition, there is always the possibility of a second or third or fourth chance at a college education.

One of the best students I ever had was a fellow in his late twenties who, fresh out of high school, had flunked out of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He followed that up by washing out of my community college (Normandale in Bloomington, Minnesota). After spending nearly a decade as a fishing guide on the Lake of the Woods he decided that he’d like to become a physician’s assistant. So there he was, back where he had almost started, ready to “do school.” Between his time as a fine fishing guide and his current career as a fine physician’s assistant he was finally a fine student. His story could not possibly be a European story.

But his is a very American story. Still, all of this is not to say that EVERYONE in America should at some time obtain a college degree. At this historical moment we have placed far too much importance on a college degree as THE ticket to success in America. But that’s another topic for another day.

All that is being emphasized here is that doing education the European way is not necessarily the best way—and it’s certainly never been the American way. Our way is far from perfect. It can be inefficient, even downright sloppy. But it’s ultimately fairer. We want people to sort themselves out.

We also want students to choose a career path that suits them. Once the government decides to foot the bill, the government will decide how many majors it wants in this field or that field. Do we want government making these decisions?

Of course, we could combine the worst of their system with the worst of ours. We could pay for everyone to go to college, no matter what. If you’re starting to “feel the Bern” on that one, stop and think before you get seriously singed. Need more be said?  I hope not.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I think there are options other than combining “the worst of their system with the worst of ours,” and I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say that our system is “fairer.” When only the relatively rich or the outstanding (in academics or sports) can afford a four-year university, it’s not only individuals who are doing the sorting. This article was disappointing to me because it lacked nuance, and it didn’t even acknowledge that our system needs changing. It also insinuates that all European nations share the same system. While they have similarities, that is far from the case. I’d love to see a real inquiry that investigates details rather than dismissing the possibility that the U.S. could learn anything from the European systems of higher education. In addition, one of the real reasons that we can’t have a system resembling any in Europe, is that Americans are anti-tax in general, and the rich in the U.S. don’t pay their rightful share.

  2. Nothing is free, someone is working and paying for any and all government handouts. Why would you ever want a third party to forcefully take from your neighbor what they have rightfully earned and give it to you. Anyone who wants something for nothing should be ashamed. Socialism spends what free, liberty loving people produce.

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