Author: Keely Herring, Johns Hopkins University ____________________________________________________________________________________
The widespread and accessible education system, extending pre-K to university level, that currently exists in Argentina can be attributed to the mission of one Argentine leader, Don Faustino Sarmiento. A well-known crusader for improved schools and education in both Chile and his homeland of Argentina, Sarmiento was chosen by the Argentine Government to embark on a tour, surveying and learning from the school systems in Europe. During his travels, Sarmiento encountered the “Seventh Annual Report,” authored by renowned United States educator Horace Mann. Sarmiento was so deeply impressed by Mann’s report, he travelled to the US and spent several months learning about the American school system under Mann, whom he called the “St. Paul of Education.” Eventually Sarmiento would return to Argentina and create the foundation for the nation’s renowned education system, a system with roots fundamentally based off the structure within the United States. Why, then, is it that all public college education in Argentina is 100% tuition-free, while in the United States it’s well… not?
Sarmiento was instrumental in the passage of the first Law of Education in 1884 which mandated “compulsory, free, and secular” education to the Argentine population. Today, Argentina’s public universities are free of charge; the only requirement is to have a high school degree and, for some of the more prestigious universities, high scores on entrance exams pertaining to the applicants’ area of interest. Public universities are financed entirely by the central government. Most of these universities are concentrated in the province of Buenos Aires, especially in the urban area surrounding the main city of Buenos Aires, but that is consistent with the population dispersion; just under half of Argentina’s population of 40 million lives in Buenos Aires province. There are roughly 60 public universities located throughout the nation, and they vary in subject area, size, and structure. One of the most renowned universities in the country is La Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires (UBA), which has different campus buildings located throughout the city. It has around 300,000 undergraduates, (that is more than five times as large as Arizona State University, the largest public university in the US) and an academic staff of roughly 30,000 people. Some of its most notable schools are for law, social sciences, and medicine among many others.
Though Argentine universities, especially those in Buenos Aires, have experienced significant setbacks as a result of continual military coups within the nation over the past century, education has remained a priority and an accessible resource to the Argentine youth. However, there are some drawbacks to education without a hefty price tag: drop-out rates are through the roof. As of late 2013, 73% of students dropped out of their universities. Education may be free, but many still need to work simultaneously with their studies to sustain themselves. Sometimes, even free education is not enough to guarantee everyone a bachelor’s degree. Despite this, many do go on to graduate. La Facultad de Derecha, UBA’s law school, has such a wide demographic of undergraduates on a variety of different course schedules and completion times that the university has a graduation ceremony every 15 days. Now that’s a lot of Pomp and Circumstance.
The concept of completely free higher education seems very foreign to those of us raised in the United States. The cost of college education in our country, especially at private universities, is something we are all painfully aware of, and it just keeps getting higher. In 2014, the top ten most expensive college tuitions were upwards of $60,000, and that doesn’t even include textbooks, living expenses, and housing. Why is it that college education is so expensive in the US? As many sources will tell you, there is no single simple answer to this question. As explained in a clip by The Atlantic, tuition is on the rise at big state universities, small public universities, and private research universities, but for different reasons. The state universities have raised tuition because of significant cuts in the state budget for spending on higher education; on average, state support for students “is falling” $1,500 per student per year, while tuition is going up $1,000 per year. Tuition at private research universities has gone up because universities are spending more on hiring the “best and brightest in administration,” as well as further renovating their campuses and campus resources, all in an effort to attract more students to apply. According to the Atlantic, universities operate under the assumption that students will borrow what they do not have in order to attend the university. If that truly is the case, why wouldn’t they raise tuition? They get more money, and they don’t have to take on any of the debt. Compared to Argentina’s dropout rate of 73%, the US has a rate of 56% for those pursuing bachelor’s degrees within six years. Though lower than our neighbor to the south, the dropout rate may be higher than many may think, especially considering the disparity in tuition costs. The cause of high dropout rates in Argentina are due to free tuition rates. In the US, by contrast, many students reported it was due to financial difficulties, as well as being unprepared for the rigor of college level courses.
Argentina and the United States are two ends of the education-cost spectrum. Few countries are immune to the public debate about the cost of education at the university level. In the past several years, countries across Europe have experienced their share of tuition changes. Recently, Lower Saxony was the last German state to abolish tuition fees that were instituted in 2006, making universities across the country tuition free. There was widespread uproar about the tuition costs, and upon their abolishment, university and education officials made statements in support of their removal, arguing that tuition made education less available to those of lower means. Now higher education at some of the best universities in the world is open not only to Germans, but to foreigners as well.
In Great Britain, there has also been widespread protest in response to the increase in tuition fees which began about two years ago. Tuition fees in England have now reached a maximum of 9,000 pounds, triple what they were in 2012. 9,000 pounds is roughly equivalent to $15,000, which means university tuition in England is still $11,000 less than the average tuition cost per year in the United States, $26,000. But still, that is more expensive than free. The British government has made repeated changes and statements, claiming that following the 2008 financial crisis, higher education funding has been harder to support. As a result of the increase in tuition by the government, protests have been constant; this past week, there was a movement by students called the Free Education March, which boasted 10,000 English students. In the States, there is not as much public protest about tuition costs. Students seem to be complacent to what is perceived as inherently high college fees. Though it is a topic many politicians address, certainly in terms of the resulting student debt, unlike Germany and England, there is not nearly the same amount of uproar and outrage. Perhaps if American students had once not had to pay high tuition, or even tuition at all, we too might be rebelling in the same way.
In the United States there are a lot of things for which we should be thankful. Though the quality of our education, especially our world-renowned universities, may be one of those things, its cost is not. When we hear the phrase “free college education,” we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that such a concept is impossible or absurd. Germany, Argentina and many others have made it possible, and that means that for us it is not such a far-fetched goal. In the words of of Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “we can’t sit back and tolerate a situation where so many talented young people who have the grades to get into top colleges are not going to them.” Bloomberg himself paid his way through Johns Hopkins with student loans and a parking attendant job at the Hopkins Inn. If he hadn’t been able to get loans or had the time to work in addition to his studies, Hopkins would not be the alma mater of the “biggest living donor” to an educational institution, and would be $1.1 billion poorer. Free tuition levels the playing field for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Being able to afford tuition to the most elite and expensive universities in the country does not equate to ability or intelligence, or even future donations to the institution itself. As demonstrated in many cases, money does not always equate to ability. We stand to learn from the situations in Germany and Argentina, as well as the activism in Great Britain. Though we should be grateful for our education, this should not instill contentment in our view of tuition fees; there is still more we can do.