Comparing college costs

The U.S. stacks up poorly against many of its European counterparts when it comes to college costs.

by Luis Ruuska

You don’t need a degree these days to know the U.S. lags behind many European countries in education.

The U.S. ranks behind every country from Finland and Denmark to South Korea and Singapore when it comes to the younger generation’s reading, math and science skills. This hardly comes as a surprise in a country where social issues, such as marijuana legalization and gun control, constantly overshadow our crumbling public education system.

That said, there is a silver lining: The U.S.’s disturbing trend of low-quality primary education does not extend to higher education.

In fact, the U.S. has been the top country in the world for higher education since 2012.

This sounds like good news, right? Truth be told, it is good news until you take a look at just how much it costs students to attend college in the U.S. versus other countries.

No doubt you’ve heard the following two statistics before: Students are approximately $1 trillion in loan debt collectively and individually owe about $26,000 on average. But why is it this way?

The best way to answer this question is by stepping out of the confines of your own world for a few minutes. I found that by looking at what other countries are doing right with their higher education systems, I could partially locate the root of what the U.S. is doing wrong with ours.

I decided to study a 2010 report conducted by the International Ranking Expert Group Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence. I looked at how the U.S. stacks up against some European countries — particularly Germany, Norway, Finland and Sweden — in higher education
financial trends.

I often heard from word of mouth that these countries offered the most affordable higher education in the world and wanted to see if the research could back those claims up.

Education cost

It’s important to understand that education cost is not directly synonymous with the cost of tuition alone; it includes additional mandatory fees such as the cost of books and other study materials.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. had the highest education cost in 2010 at $13,856. The same data showed that Finland’s education cost came in second at $1,243 while Germany ($933), Sweden ($600) and Norway ($596) rounded up the other three spots.

The average American student spent more than $1,000 on textbooks and supplies in 2010 alone. For $400 less, Norwegian and Swedish students got one year’s worth of a college education. But how is this possible?

It’s possible because many European countries have eliminated tuition fees or have placed a maximum cap on how much universities are allowed to charge annually. For instance, German universities are only allowed to charge a maximum of 1,000 euros annually — if they charge at all.

Total cost

The total cost included the combined costs of education as well as living expenses, such as housing, utilities, food and transportation.

Again, the results were similar to the education cost data: The U.S. sported the highest total cost of the five countries at $23,615 in 2010. With a slight reorder, this time Germany was the most affordable at $6,250. Finland came in second at $7,977 while Norway and Sweden followed at $8,096 and
$9,265, respectively.

All in all, the IREG Observatory gave Finland, Norway, and Germany the top three spots in terms of overall affordability rankings while Sweden received fifth place and the U.S. received 12th.

Two things became abundantly clear to me after exploring all of these different rankings.

One: Those word-of-mouth rumors about the most affordable higher education systems in the world in those countries were true.

Two: The U.S.’s woes with the cost of attending college aren’t just a product of any single factor.

The reason the U.S. ranks so low on the global higher education stage financially is a culmination of factors.

It is the fact that colleges are continuously raising their tuition and the cost of living is still extremely high. It is the fact that the textbook industry hikes up prices each year, and it is the fact that financial institutions are continuing to charge astronomical interest rates
on student loans.

Ultimately, while we may have the best higher education system in the world, what good is it if so many of our own people cannot afford to take advantage of it?

I don’t have the answer to the cost of higher education debate, but what I do know is that it is a debate we need to be having.