What If Education Was Free In The U.S. Instead Of Outrageously Expensive?

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Douglas Jones, Jr. via Flickr Commons

What if, instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars on tuition for college, you went to an institution that charged exactly $0 to everyone, and still had scholarships for working class students? What if you didn’t have to go through the application process? What if you didn’t have to take the SATs, or sit for AP classes and exams, or worry about how many leadership positions you hold, or even get decent grades in high school, and you still got in one of the top three colleges in your country?

This situation I have just described may come across as an impossible dream to you (or a pie in the sky, if you are more on the Republican side), but it’s actually a reality. Better yet, it’s a reality for me, specifically. Like everything in life, it has its cons as well as its pros but first, I am going to describe the educational system here in Argentina and lay out all the relevant details so you’re better acquainted with it.

According to this list, the institution I attend, National University of Córdoba (Universidad Nacional de Córdoba) is the third best university in the country, the first being the UBA (University of Buenos Aires, also public). The National University of Córdoba is a public university entirely subsidized by national funds. It is also probably the best institution in the country to study one of the programmes I am in, Translation, since the UN has recently signed an agreement with the School of Languages and it became the first accredited university in Latin America to officially educate translators and interpreters for the UN.

The admission process in my school (with the exception of the Faculty of Medical Sciences) is practically non-existent, and even for applicants to the Faculty of Medical Sciences, high school grades are irrelevant (as long as the student has passed all the classes) and there is no need to take any standardized exams.What you have to do in order to get in is attend some preliminary classes offered at the university itself, which last between one and two months. In these classes you are taught what you need to know in order to take the admission exam. What is tested on this exam varies from faculty to faculty and from major to major. It’s generally a compendium of content related to what you’re going to study, although some institutions also require you to study the local public educational system and to polish your language and math skills. In most faculties, you pass the exam and you are in. The Faculty of Medical Sciences, as I’ve already mentioned, is the exception because it accepts only the five hundred best scores in the admission exam. In the University of Buenos Aires, these preliminary classes last a full academic year and are called the CBC (Ciclo Básico Común or Common Basic Cycle). In Argentina, this year of preliminary classes is the closest equivalent to a liberal arts education.

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Crest of the University of Córdoba – Juan Manuel

Here, you declare your major from the moment you start college and you only have classes related to it. There is a fixed set of subjects students have to take in order to get their degrees without much (if any) space for electives.

Another major difference this educational system has in comparison to the American one is the fact that professional school does not exist in a postgraduate level. You can go to college for six years and receive an undergraduate professional degree as a medical doctor or a lawyer. Most of the people who go to college here and finish it end up with a degree called licenciatura, which is generally equated to a Bachelor’s degree but actually lasts five years instead of four and includes a senior thesis, and thus some people equate it to a Bachelor’s degree and half a Master’s degree. The four-year structure is popular among private institutions. The equivalent of vocational schools and associate’s degrees are the tecnicaturas, which last between one and three years and, even in public institutions, usually charge a small fee.

The pros of this system are quite obvious. You can get a college education free of charge. Bankruptcy because of college-related debt is an unknown phenomenon here. I am actually not opposed to the fact that we have a fixed set of classes instead of a liberal arts structure, because I think our professionals have a more thorough knowledge of their area of study once they graduate, although it’s true that a liberal arts education could help many young people who are still clueless when it comes to what vocation they want to choose.

But there are also some unexpected problems: Overcrowding and the fact that students face increasing difficulty in graduating.

Overcrowding is a common phenomenon at public universities in metropolitan areas. In my school, there are around 300,000 enrolled students, and there are cases where there are 200 students per class. In some really crowded faculties, you have to arrive a lot earlier to class in order to get a seat, and seeing students sitting in the hallways and hearing the lecture from a distance is very common.

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Pedro Ramundo – Flickr Commons

You are probably wondering how institutions founded on such Populist notions have become some of the best in the nation. This is possible because, while universities are not at all selective with the students who get in, they compensate by being so demanding that only a small number of students get out with a degree to their names. Since you have to pass certain key subjects per year in order to go on to the next, some professors, overwhelmed by the quantity of students they have to teach and evaluate, make finals so hard that you have to have an excellent knowledge of the subject in order to pass it. Each of the five years work to filter out students that do not have what it takes to graduate. Getting stuck in the first, second or third year is something that happens very frequently, even more frequently than completing your degree requirements in the expected five years. Thus, these five years often become six, seven, eight or more. Some students take the same final over and over again for years without being able to pass it, and thus are forced to drop out or transfer to a private institution. In this way, the ‘open to all’ aspect of  public higher education in my country, which prides itself in being inclusive, may be a myth after all.

Some in Argentina believe that the whole point of having universities free of charge is that all kinds of people, from all economic classes and with different levels of intelligence, can have a university education. Considering the second problem I’ve described, I don’t think that is reality, at least in the formal sense, because, while all sorts of people can attend college classes, only a few select students can graduate. Given the demanding requirements of public universities, working part-time while also studying is pretty challenging, and working full-time while studying is nearly impossible. Again talking about the idea of equity in the context of university, this study from Princeton university raises a very good point. Getting a degree means, in many cases, losing the possibility of working. Therefore, all of the taxes that subsidize public education may be helping people that don’t need this kind of help. So, the poor are kept from working because of the demands of school and continue afford to continue while young people from the upper-middle classes that can afford not to work or only work part-time are able to continue for the four or five years getting a degree requires..

Now, should this system be implemented in the United States? Or should Argentina adopt a system that’s more similar to the American one?

Realistically, it is pretty impossible that the United States will subsidize public colleges in the way that Argentina does, at least in the foreseeable future. I do not think, however, that the astronomic quantities of money that universities, public and private, expect from the people of the American middle classes are fair. Neither do I think that the Argentinian system is perfect. Perhaps it would benefit from charging a fee that’s enough to avoid overcrowding, but not enough that it discourages people from middle classes, or from working classes with a scholarship, to attend college. Or perhaps public colleges should remain free of charge but adopt an admission system similar to the one in the United States.

I think that, in the end, whatever route you think should be followed by higher education in your country will be in line with your political beliefs. It’s no wonder that things are as they are in such a leftist country as Argentina, or that, in the other extreme, things are as they are in the capitalist land known as the United States of America. TC mark

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