Several countries offer free tuition, but it comes at a price
Hiago Garchet was scared when he first decided to study abroad.
At the time, he wasn’t fluent in English and didn’t know anyone in the United States. He hadn’t spent more than 10 days away from his home in Brazil.
He remembers calling his dad during his first week here, overwhelmed by the classes.
“Dad, I don’t know man. This is tough. The professors speak very fast. There’s a lot of information, and I don’t understand quite a few of the words.”
Hiago grew up speaking Portuguese, so his most difficult barrier in coming to an American school was the language. But he applied himself and overcame.
“I’m still learning,” he said. “It’s a constant process.” If he hears a new word, he repeats it, using it in conversation later that day so it stays in his mind.
Hiago is from Belo Horizonte, capital of the Brazilian state Minas Gerais. He is currently a senior at Ball State, where an athletic scholarship pays for his education while he plays for the men’s volleyball team.
“When you graduate [high school], you get lost,” he said. “‘Where am I gonna go? What am I gonna do now?’ But then you find your next step. I really wanted to play volleyball, but also wanted to get an education. Coming here was the solution, killing both birds with the same stone. And two really nice birds, I’ll say. I have everything I need.”
In Brazil, tuition is free at public universities. According to a study by Brazil’s National Institute of Educational Studies (INEP), however, these federally funded schools are very competitive. Most students who pass the entrance exams are those of a higher class who were able to attend expensive, private high schools. Poorer students who lacked such opportunities are generally not accepted into free programs, and instead attend private, for-profit institutions with a smaller selection of degrees that may lead to lucrative careers.
According to the INEP study, this reinforces inequality in society. Seeking to reverse the trend, Brazil’s government enacted The Law of Social Quotas in 2012. This affirmative action law requires public colleges to reserve half of their seats for students who graduated from generally poor public high schools. The change was to be fully implemented by this year.
Hiago said that free Brazilian schools are extremely difficult to get into, so employers highly respect those graduates.
“Only the best that apply for that specific major at that specific school get selected,” he explained.
Private colleges are expensive, he said, but not as much as in America, because most students live at home. He prefers the on-campus living community available here.
Hiago said that he attended a private high school because the free public options are poorer quality and lack infrastructure. While racial diversity in Brazil unites society, he explained, this gap in education exemplifies a socioeconomic separation.
Free or affordable college is available in several other countries. Public tuition in Germany is government funded, and students are only required to pay a semester fee of about $200. Sweden offers free doctorate study for international students, and Norway offers free tuition but a high cost of living. Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Turkey also provide free tuition, according to a report from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Meanwhile, tuition fees continue to rise in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of college has increased more than 1,000 percent in the past 40 years, nearly doubling the inflation rate of other commodities like medical care and housing. More than 70 percent of students graduate with student loan debt that averages about $29,400 per person. This is more than 65 percent of an annual salary for most graduates in their first years after college.
“In Brazil it’s expensive,” Hiago said, “but here it’s stupid expensive.”
Rob Wirt, associate director of financial aid at Ball State, said that many countries with low college prices subsidize with higher taxes on citizens, “so the true cost may not be as inexpensive as it first appears or is assumed.” He explained that the rapid increase in U.S. tuition costs may be due to declining government support, which forces universities to account for lost revenue by raising fees. He also said that there are several contesting answers to this question.
Dr. Laurie Cox, director of international student services at Ball State, said that the difficulty in lowering tuition costs may reflect the growing demand for higher education in America. She said federally funded tuition could hinder accessibility as the government may have to place a limit on the number of students who can attend. This is similar to public college in Brazil.
Recognizing the problem of student debt, multiple presidential candidates have proposed strategies to make college more affordable. Hillary Clinton introduced The New College Compact, which plans to eliminate the necessity of student loans and help those already in debt refinance their loans. This would be funded by limiting tax exemptions for wealthier citizens. Bernie Sanders has plans to make public tuition free and prevent the federal government from profiting on student loans. A proposed new tax on Wall Street would pay for these goals.
Rob believes that lowering American tuition costs is “absolutely possible,” but that it would be difficult in the present political climate.
“I’m not advocating for simply adopting what other countries are doing,” he said, “but I do think there are lessons to be learned by studying what has been successful there.”
According to Rob, the challenge is in discerning the balance between accessibility and quality.
“In my opinion,” he said, “employers will want highly skilled, trained, educated, and well-rounded graduates no matter what the cost of the degree.”
English program options offered by nations with free tuition may attract U.S. students who desire a cheaper education.
Dr. Cox encourages students to study abroad, as she did in London during her junior year.
“I learned to be more responsible, to make more personal decisions, and ultimately became far more self-reliant than I would have back home,” she said. “I learned a lot about myself and my place in the world.”
International students who study here experience similar benefits, she added, along with the chance to improve their English, become bicultural, and develop confidence, which are all important skills “for anyone wishing to work in the increasingly global workplace.”
Hiago also recommends that anyone with the opportunity travels abroad to learn another language and culture.
“It puts you out of your comfort zone and that makes you grow a lot as a person,” he said.
Dr. Cox explained that international students may struggle with the prolonged inability to visit friends and family, but comfort may be found in a new community of friends and regular communication with people back home.
“Transitioning to life in a foreign country is not an easy experience but it is a rich and rewarding one,” she said.
Hiago tries to keep in touch with friends, and Skypes with family about twice a week.
“I’m very attached to my family,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t talk to them for four or five days and my mom goes crazy.”
Despite the increasing price of U.S. tuition, many students from other countries choose to study here. More than 1,000 chose Ball State. This is largely due to an availability of opportunities that international students may not have access to otherwise. Rob said that some nations offer no form of higher education, and those that do sometimes provide a poorer quality system than that of U.S. schools. International students from countries with developed universities may be pursuing specialized fields not offered at home.
Most international students view their experience here as an important investment in their future, said Dr. Cox. American curriculum allows them to study a wider variety of subjects and have more control over what they pursue, all while gaining the unique experience of a different environment.
However, financial restrictions prevent many from pursuing this opportunity. The total yearly cost for an international student at Ball State is more than $40,000.
“If it wasn’t for my scholarship I wouldn’t be able to be here,” Hiago said.
Gratitude for this scholarship motivates Hiago to do his best both on and off the volleyball court.
“There’s no point in coming here and just messing around and wasting the opportunity,” he said.
After graduation, Hiago wants to become a professional volleyball player, preferably in Italy among “some of the best players in the world.” If this doesn’t work out, he will return to America and pursue a master’s degree in business, then search for a career that will value his Brazilian culture. But he is excited and confident that he will succeed as an athlete.
Hiago’s favorite aspect of America is the people.
“I have met so many amazing people from all over the world that I would never have the opportunity to meet at home,” he said, pointing to an antique ring from Istanbul that he’d received from a close Turkish friend.
Hiago was surprised and encouraged when the opposing fans at a volleyball match expressed interest in his culture.
“I have known people here for four years who have never asked about Brazil,” he explained, “and those people cheering for the other team came afterwards to ask about my experience.”
Though Hiago originally wanted to room with someone from Brazil, he thanks his dad for persuading him not to. He instead lived with a student from San Diego who helped with the transition to America during his first year.
“I remember struggling a lot with papers,” Hiago said. “That was rough at the beginning, but he helped me out.”
In the weeks before Hiago had to make the decision, his dad would come to his room every night to encourage him with the reasons for studying abroad. He wanted his son to meet new people and learn about different cultures while continuing to play volleyball and growing as a person. If Hiago had discovered that an American campus wasn’t right for him, however, the doors at home would always be open.
“Knowing that I could come home at any time and they would be waiting for me gave me some comfort and made the decision a little easier,” he said.
But this fallback has not been necessary, and Hiago has loved his time here.
“This is the best decision I’ve ever made.”