‘Free’ college in Europe isn’t that great a deal

CSU chancellor Timothy White talks with students and staff at California State University, Sacramento, on May 3. Karin Klein says CSUs are a better model than “free” universities in Europe.
CSU chancellor Timothy White talks with students and staff at California State University, Sacramento, on May 3. Karin Klein says CSUs are a better model than “free” universities in Europe.

The cry for free public college education predated the Bernie Sanders campaign and will almost certainly last long after it. He asked: Why can’t we do what so much of Europe does?

Ultimately, though, a better question might be: Do we really want to do what Europe does?

The college experience there is very different from what students expect here, and not all of it is likely to work well in a nation this diverse, where we try to create more opportunity for those who need extra help.

Yes, the cost of college in the United States has spun out of control. So-called Robin Hood pricing – charging full freight to wealthy families to provide financial aid to others – isn’t working well. Only about 70 private universities claim to meet families’ full financial need, and even that almost always includes loans.

European countries are generally willing to provide more public support for higher education, which means a higher tax burden. But there’s more to free college than the difference in price and taxes.

Generally speaking, the European model is one of stripped-down education – affordable, but not enriched. Germany, which offers free college to even foreign students, is fairly typical. Students generally live at home and commute to campus; in other words, it’s like going to community college for four years. Team sports are barely a blip on the scene. Student centers for socializing and gyms for exercise are missing. Extracurricular offerings are thin.

Class sizes are larger and professors teach more of them. That means students have little opportunity to build relationships with instructors and they receive less help. Students learn maturity in the European system, but large numbers of first-generation U.S. college students need counseling and other services that aren’t available abroad.

Europeans students are judged by finals and possibly a midterm, without the smaller, interim assignments that help keep them on track. Students are more lectured at rather than engaged in discussion and project work. They are expected to specialize rather than take a broader, liberal-arts education.

U.S. universities are seen as producing students with deeper skills in critical thinking and creative problem-solving, said Daniel Obst, deputy vice president of the Institute for International Education. And this is something European schools are increasingly interested in imitating.

Even with free tuition in Germany, the U.S. educates a much higher percentage of its students after high school – 45 percent compared with about 30 percent in Germany, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

The European system isn’t necessarily worse or better, just more utilitarian. Its administration is admirably less bloated and richly paid and, really, can’t we do without the climbing walls and the huge array of team sports?

The strange thing is that in all of this discussion about European colleges, no one seems to mention what might be the better model for public higher education. It’s right in our midst: The California State University system.

Tuition is less than $6,000 a year, which is waived for students with family incomes of less than $80,000. It provides more services than most European schools, and 14 of its campuses accept more than 60 percent of applicants. Maybe by trimming administrative expenses, reducing the number of team sports and investing the savings in more course sections so students can enroll in needed classes, we can do the Europeans one better.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at