Higher education in Europe functions in society differently from higher education in United States, and that’s a barrier to European-style free college in America.
“Americans don’t actually want the kind of stripped-down higher education that could be provided at public expense,” Samuel Goldman wrote for The American Conservative.
Many college systems across Europe are free or low-cost for students. They even have better graduation rates than American universities. However, most European systems lack the access and flexibility of American higher education. American colleges are radically democratic in that the only obstacle is financial, and the federal government provides that largesse through grants, scholarships, and student loans.
Social and economic advancement, then, is a feature of American higher education. In European systems, that is not the case. A college degree isn’t expected by the majority of students, as it is in America, to lead to personal economic betterment.
A German college, unlike an American college, doesn’t have robust athletic programs, dormitories, non-academic amenities, and academic flexibility.
“German universities, in other words, are different from what most Americans have in mind when they think of college,” Goldman wrote. “Classes are generally large lectures at which attendance is strictly optional. Graduation is based on rigorous exams rather than modular coursework. And students choose their subjects of concentration prior to enrollment, and switching is not easy.”
Aside from optional class attendance, the German experience greatly differs from the American experience. If America imported the European model and made it free, most students would flee to private colleges for the American model.
The great attraction of the German model are its costs; if American universities jettisoned the athletics, “student life activities,” dining options, and general amenities that students take for granted now, costs would radically fall. At that point, the government providing a free education could be moot because it would be much more affordable and the threat of eternal debt would disappear.
However, it would also remove the cultural and social aspects of higher education. American college, after all, is an investment good as much as a consumption good. It would be extremely difficult to import the benefits of a low-cost European system without losing the most-valued aspects of the American system.