On Tuesday, presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.) unveiled a bill designed to provide free tuition at all public colleges and universities in the U.S. The self-described socialist contends that free public higher education is not only a way to expand access to the vital institution, but also a means by which the U.S. can remain competitive in the global economy.
"Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people," he said in the statement about the bill. "They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same."
On the campaign trail, Sanders has looked across the Atlantic for inspiration before. While some pundits have suggested that his repeated invocation of Europe as a model for America is a political death wish, Sanders has placed faith in the idea that reminding the public that there are real policy alternatives to the American way can be galvanizing.
A number of affluent democracies around the world do indeed provide tuition without any cost at all (aside from small registration fees). It's a matter of fiscal priority — these countries take in more revenue through more aggressively progressive tax codes, and then invest it in covering the cost of tuition for students. Here are some countries that pull it off:
Norway offers free tuition for students at public colleges and universities. Students are required to pay a semester fee of about $40 to $80 as well as living expenses, although eligible individuals can apply for financial support to offset those costs. The tuition-free system in Norway also applies to international students, according to the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education. Bachelors, masters and doctorate programs at the 40 public colleges and universities across Norway are all tuition-free.
Finland does not charge students for college tuition. Last year, the government considered the idea of charging fees for students from outside of the European Union, but eventually dropped the proposal after it came under heavy pressure from Finnish student groups. Given that many programs are in English, it is feasible for an American to study there without paying for tuition.
Denmark makes the proposition of free college seem ungenerous. Danes over the age of 18 living away from their parents receive a government stipend of roughly $900 per month to incentivize their study. If they drop out of their program, they don't have to pay the government back for the grants.
Cost of tuition for German college: $0. The combination of Germany's elite educational offerings, the prevalence of English in the country and its famously free higher education has made it something of a mecca for international students.
In Sweden, tuition for college is free. Most Swedish students do take on sizable debt paying for room and board while studying away from home, but the terms of the loans make repayment — considered culturally to be solely the burden of students, rather than a shared obligation between students and their parents — quite manageable.
These arrangements aren't always easy to maintain. The global financial crisis and the austerity measures that it produced in many countries across Europe in the past several years resulted in a government withdrawal from government services and the introduction of new or higher fees for higher education. Even in societies that view higher education as a right, investment in it is never immune to the ups and downs of the political climate.