What the left needs to know about free uni tuition

The cost of university tuition is something I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. Especially with Bernie Sanders’ suggestion to make university tuition free in the US, I think Americans need to understand how the free tuition programs work in Europe.

congrats germany

I work as a teacher in Europe, but I earned my master’s degree in the US. Before I did my student teaching in the Czech Republic, I attended a conference panel about how public education there is organized. The presenters gave me this flow chart, which I took dutifully took notes on.

czech chart

Still, I didn’t really understand exactly what this chart meant until I was teaching at a middle school in Czech. I taught at a public school, in tandem with the class’s usual English teacher. Class sizes were around 20 students.

Until one day, I came in to find that my usual class had shrunk. Only a handful of students were there, and confused, I asked the teacher what was up.

It was testing day, she said. 

But… Why weren’t all the students taking the test? I asked.

This was the test to get into the high school for university-bound students, she said. Therefore, only the students who were going to university were taking the test. The remaining students would attend technical or vocational schools.

So, at the age of 13 or 14, these teenagers already knew if they’d be attending university.

I was appalled… I mean, what if you were a terrible student as a teen, but then went on to become a more dedicated, focused adult? Were there no second chances?

As I’ve been teaching in Poland, I’ve noticed the same thing here: tests at the end of middle school to determine which high schools the students attend. After that, there’s a qualifying exam at the end of high school to determine which, if any, universities students attend, and how much of the tuition cost will be paid for by the government.


That’s what I think is missing from the discussion about implementing free university tuition programs in the US: an understanding of this European system of tracking students and testing. While the US does have some standardized tests that affect which university you can attend, public schools in the US do not track and monitor students the way European schools do. There is no separate high school for students not attending university, for example. In addition, the tests used most often in the US– the ACT and SAT– are not offered through public schools. They are private tests, that have fees to register, take and even have the scores sent to universities.

I think the US should adopt free tuition programs, styled after the ones in some European countries. In this video, I’m going to focus on the possible difficulties of adopting those programs, due to the differences in testing and tracking between the US and Europe.

I’ll explain this as if I was talking to someone who’s unfamiliar with schooling in either the US or Europe. So, I’m going to use the American phrase “high school” rather than secondary education, and refer to “higher education” instead of “tertiary” in this video. However, I’m also using university throughout this, and not “college.” Finally, I’m not going to talk about private schools, in either the US or Europe; I want the focus to be on public schools and universities that require government funding to operate.

While I think no-cost tuition would be a great program for the US, it would not be a magic bullet. There’s a few other things that would need to be changed in how US public schools are run to make schooling more equal for all.



Let’s start with how publicly funded middle and high schools work in the US. Basically, each city or town has a school district. Generally, you attend the high school that’s closest to you. Some school districts do have what are called “magnet schools.” That’s where schools focus on a specific subject or field. Still, most US schools offer general education. There’s also the much-debated program of busing in the US, which I’ll discuss later in the video.

School districts in Detroit

Unlike public schools in some European countries, the US doesn’t have an official test that middle schoolers take to determine which high school a student attends. In England, this high school entrance exam is called the GCSE; in Denmark, it’s the Cito exam. I did mention magnet schools, which are a little different than general schools—but only 3.7 percent of public schools in the US are magnet schools.

A few states also have programs like vouchers or schools of choice. Schools of choice, like the one in Denver, allow students to attend any school in a district. However, the students cannot rely on public school buses, and so this favors wealthy families with multiple cars or parents who have schedules that allow them time to take their children to school.

Vouchers are funding from the government, allowing students to attend either public or private schools. The idea is to increase competition between schools, and thereby improving the quality of schools. However, some voucher programs allow parents to send their children to parochial or religious schools, a clear violation of church and state. In addition, there’s debate about the effect of voucher programs on both public schools and student’s performance. European high schools are more similar to magnet schools or schools of choice— they have specialized classes and a process to get in.

The US also has charter schools, which receive public funding but are selective about what students they admit. Worse, these schools can be sponsored by churches, which stretches the boundaries of church and state. Charter schools tend not to have teachers unions, and so tend to have less qualified teachers and a higher turnover rate.

Being from Michigan, which has a high number of charters, I’m really biased. I believe charters take money and attention from public schools and purposefully avoid oversight. I’ve also worked in charters, and know people who’ve worked for them. I’ve linked to some studies that show the issues with charter schools.



At the end of high school in most European countries, students must, absolutely must, take an exit exam. All students take the same exit exam. If a student wants to go to university and have their tuition paid for, there are certain scores or grades they need in order to qualify.

According to my teenage students, it’s incredibly important to study for this test, and it’s also incredibly stressful. 

What the test is called varies from country to country. In England, they’re the A levels. In Germany, the Arbitur. In Poland, it’s called Matura. Many countries have variations on this name, from Czech’s Maturita to Italy’s Maturità. (I have no idea if I’m pronouncing those correctly!) France has the Baccalaureat, which differs from any other EU nation’s tests, because, well… it’s France.

This is in contrast to the United States. There is no one standard, required test for university enrollment offered through public schools. The closest equivalent is the Advanced Placement test, or AP test. However, while a lot of the exit exams are mandatory in European countries— the A levels in England and the Matura exam in Poland, for example— AP tests are not required in the US. In fact, those tests are not even available at all high schools. In 2015, only 73 percent of rural high school students had access to AP tests, compared with 92 percent in urban schools and 95 percent in suburban schools.

But… just because students could take AP tests doesn’t mean they actually did.


So, only around 20 to 30 percent of students take the AP test. To me, this is a problem if the US wants to adopt a no-cost tuition program.

While some tests do give US students scholarship money, like the National Merit Scholarship, this is nothing like the country-wide university tuition programs Europe has.

I also need to explain the ACTand SAT, both of which are standardized tests used to decide university admission. However, those tests are different than the AP test, because they’re for-profit, meaning you have to pay a fee, and unlike Europe’s tests, they’re not offered through the regular high school classes.

And that’s a problem. In the US, the tests most commonly used for university admissions require a student to spend time and money outside of school to prepare for and take an exam. Unlike in Europe, where a student preparing for the A levels or Matura-type exam knows that the material will be part of high school’s standard curriculum. 

This is where it gets complicated. In certain countries, such as Poland, university tuition is only paid for if you get certain grades on the Matura exam, as well as choose a specific major. In Germany, it’s different—as near as I can tell, university tuition is free for anyone who qualifies. To fund this, taxes in Germany are much higher.

Still, I think this is very important to keep in mind: in most European countries with free tuition programs, there is a standard way of qualifying for university. Compare that with the US, which is a grab bag of SAT, ACT, or AP scores, after-school activities, an essay you write, and often, if your parents gave lots of money to said institution. A few universities don’t require either the ACT or SAT at all. 

The main thing is, though, the current US system for university admissions favors students who come from wealthy families. 


TESTS: Americans don’t like them

And this is a difference between the US and Europe, when it comes to university tuition and placement: tests. Students in public schools in Europe are tracked and tested, from middle through high school, and those scores affect both what high school and university students attend. In the US, students attend the school closest to them– which often means that parents will choose to live in cities or neighborhoods with better schools. Since property and income tax is the main way US public schools are funded, there is a huge difference in quality between rich school districts compared with poor ones. 

I’ve seen this stark difference first hand: I’ve taught in Hamtramck, a district in Detroit. Sometimes the classrooms didn’t have enough textbooks for all the students, and one elementary school had children playing in a parking lot as opposed to a playground with equipment. Schools in wealthier school districts, like Grosse Pointe or Ann Arbor, had more resources.


But this inequality across school districts might not be enough to convince people to adopt a more European-like system… especially to the idea of tracking students. I’m guessing that a lot of other Americans will have the same reaction I did in the Czech Republic: what? A test you take at 14 sets the course of your life? And then another test at the end of high school determines everything else? It’s not just a guess, actually—I’ve found other parents and educators who’ve written about disliking systems of tracking, and specifically, the standardized tests of European countries. The idea that one test you take as a teenager has a meaningful impact on your future isn’t something that would likely sit well with most Americans.

Since I’ve worked as a substitute teacher, or supply teacher, in the US, I’ve heard plenty of teachers complain about tests. Mention more standardized testing in discussions about education and people will not like it. Ugh! Testing! You’re teaching to the tests and not teaching the students, and not encouraging them to think critically!

I think that both Americans’ attitudes towards standardized tests, as well as the availability and popularity of the AP test in US schools, presents a big barrier toward a “free university tuition” program in America.

And yes, I’m aware that in the US, most students at 14 have a good idea if they’re actually going to university or not. But the illusion of freedom and choice has a powerful hold on many Americans.

If US universities offered free tuition, there would be some practical things to consider. Who gets the tuition? How does one qualify? Are all programs and degrees free, or just some? Once you enroll, do you have to graduate, or can you drop out without needing to repay the tuition? Would there be an age limit on who can attend?

(Yes, I’m aware that if the US stopped spending so much on defense and the military, we could easily fund this program. But, unless we’ve all got a date set for the socialist revolution, I think it’s really useful to talk about how the program will be implemented. But let me know about the revolution, I’m totally there, I just need to leave out extra food for my cat.)  

US spending

Also, free tuition doesn’t mean university would be cost-free. You’d still have to buy textbooks, find a place to live, and possibly pay enrollment fees.

There’s another thing to consider: on average, more Americans than Europeans enroll in university. Compare 88 percent of Americans with Germany’s 70 percent. More students in university means more cost, as there would need to be more courses offered, perhaps more professors or instructors hired, etc. 

Percentage of students enrolled in higher education Enrollment

I’m not sure if simply making university tuition free will be the best way to make higher education more attainable for more Americans. I really think we need to look at inequality across school districts— particularly ones in urban and rural areas, the ones who don’t even offer AP tests. I also think we need to get rid of the SAT/ACT requirements and replace them with a requirement for AP test scores for university admissions. This would, at least in part, get rid of the way the scales are tipped in favor of students from wealthier families. 


When I mentioned US school districts before, I mentioned busing. Busing was a program designed to integrate racially segregated school districts. It started in 1954 after the Supreme Court decision Brown Vs The Board of Education, and the idea was to address years of housing inequality. Basically, black people in the US had a hard time buying homes in white neighborhoods, due to a combo of banks refusing to give them mortgages and racist neighborhood associations. Since the school you attend is directly connected with where you live, housing discrimination trapped a lot of black students in poor, failing school districts. School busing helped students in poor schools attend schools that were better quality, and often much further away from where they lived.

I’m not going to go into busing too much, because it was controversial and academics are still debating how well it worked. But, it is an example of the US trying to fix the problem of inequality across school districts. I might address this in an upcoming vid.

Also, I think that only making tuition free and not changing admission requirements will just give students from upper and middle class families an edge— whose children were already going to university. I have no desire to fund people who can easily afford to send their children to UC-Berkeley, for example.

If the US wants to adopt a free tuition program, it must consider how wealth is a factor in university admissions. Since public schools in the US are funded with local taxes, like income and property tax, the amount of money that different public school districts receive varies a lot, as I’ve mentioned. In most European countries, spending on public schools is much more even across different school districts and cities. For example, in Germany, over 90 percent of public school funding comes from state sources as opposed to the cities themselves.In the US, about half of public school funding comes from the city.

I do think that if the US can figure out a good acceptance program for free university tuition, we should definitely do that. However, since the quality of public schools can vary a lot, from district to district, I think we should have some stepping stones to get to free tuition.

So, with that in mind, here are my ideas to improve access to higher education in the United States, to make it easier to adopt a free tuition program:

  1. Student loan forgiveness

I’m not going to spend a lot of time justifying this one. Here’s some headlines about the rising cost of tuition versus wages. Student loan debt is dragging the US economy down, and holding people, who signed loans at 18, hostage to predatory lending practices and the insanity of interest rates is dumb. The only people who benefit from the current student loan policies are bankers, and frankly, I don’t care about them as much as I care about people putting their lives on hold because of debt.. Forgiving student loans won’t ruin bankers’ lives the same way crippling debt is affecting Americans.


2. Free community college:

I think this would be a great stepping-stone to the US offering free tuition: make two-year colleges no cost. Piloting a program like this would be a good way to start making tuition free. Since changing the way universities are funded would be a massive undertaking, I think it’d be a good idea to have a practice run, so to speak. On the practical side, in the meantime, this would lower the cost of tuition, as a lot of universities accept transfer credits from community colleges, especially ones nearby.
In addition, there are seven states that have a free community college program, called College Promise, in a program started during the Obama administration.


3. Free vocational schools:

In the same vein as community college, make these free as well. I really reject the idea that there are some types of jobs or learning that are more “valuable” than others. A society needs mechanics and electricians as well as teachers and doctors.


4. More funding and prominence to the AP classes and tests.

If the US is going to have no-cost tuition, it’s got to have a way of determining who qualifies. Since AP classes are already available in many public schools, it makes sense to expand that program, as opposed to having students spend time and money on the ACT or SAT tests.


5. Make spending for different school districts more equal.

This is easily the most controversial of my ideas. However, as long as the amount of money schools can spend on students is directly tied to how wealthy a school district is, education in the US will never be equal.

The inequality in the US is stark: I’ve seen schools in poorer cities with old equipment, like overhead projectors like the ones I remember from the 80s, while richer school districts had interactive smartboards installed in classrooms.


6. Regulate the cost of public universities.

Seriously, American universities are expensive. There’s a number of reasons for this, including administrative costs, as well as housing costs, as most US students live in dorms and most European students don’t. It’s true that the US does have more elite institutions, where a lot of quality research is performed, that reject a high number of applicants. Despite these factors, when federal and state budgets are cut, universities will often shift the cost onto the students by raising tuition. I think it’s worth looking into how much tuition costs at public universities, and why. To me, it’s worth having separate federal spending for research performed at elite universities, meaning that it’s not just students who will pay for that research.


7. Regulate student loan practices.

After forgiving student loans, someone who is not so sympathetic to student loan lenders should write up policies to regulate places like Fannie Mae. For example, get a handle on interest rates. And don’t let students fall prey to low-quality private universities that promise jobs but don’t deliver, or who go bankrupt and leave students on the hook for tuition costs for degrees they didn’t receive.

I did say I wouldn’t discuss private schools, but this is an example of private school costs becoming a problem that affects the public.

To answer a basic question: how does Europe pay for university tuition? Well, higher taxes, of course. But, I think you’d ask your average 20 to 40 year old US citizen, who either has student loan debt or who has friends who do… well, you’re going to have to pay for it, one way or the other.

I’d rather give money to a university, or pay higher taxes, than give money to a loan company. Universities spend money on things like books, professors, research, lab equipment, and probably too much money on athletics, as fun as they may be. Still a better deal than giving your dollars to student loan lenders, who invest that money in… themselves and more banking institutions. 

I’m going to remind you that student loan debt is dragging the economy down. All the angry tweets about personal responsibility will not change the fact that wages have not kept up with the cost of living.

Personally, I think making university tuition free in the US is a good step toward leveling the playing field, in terms of education and economic opportunities, for different classes in the US.

I’m willing to pay higher taxes if it means that education will be more available to more people. And if everyone has a little more schooling… that means a better educated society. Sounds good to me.




Germany’s tracking system (chart from video)



School districts in Detroit: https://www.resa.net/about/local-districts


Magnet schools: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg65.html


School of choice program in Denver:



Vouchers: https://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/vouchers/


On charter schools:



On inequalities across school districts: https://www.wvpe.org/post/these-school-district-lines-highlight-segregation-hot-spots-michigan


On universities using SAT and ACT scores:



More universities dropping the SAT/ACT requirements:



A list of universities where the SAT/ACT is optional: https://www.fairtest.org/university/optional


This blog post shows how confusing the system is:



On magnet schools:






England’s A levels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md8yxDaV1lQ&list=PLysxqK9RZRwRaVeZAD6xLImZF2nIrPTj6&index=4&t=0s




Germany’s Arbitur: https://www.studying-in-germany.org/german-abitur/


Poland’s Matura: https://www.polandeducation.info/tests/polish-matura.html


Matura requirement:



A levels versus matura: https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=4919484


Other EU countries, Mature, Matur, Maturita, Maturità, Maturität, Maturité, Mатура: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matura


France’s Baccalaureat: https://www.frenchentree.com/living-in-france/education/the-baccalaureat-vs-alevels/


AP classes: https://www.crimsoneducation.org/au/blog/a-levels-grades


AP versus ACT versus A levels: https://www.kaptest.co.uk/blog/us-undergrad/levels-vs-sat


Not all US high schools have AP classes:



National Merit Scholarship:



Fees for SAT:



Fees for ACT:



Legacy programs: https://www.npr.org/2018/11/04/663629750/legacy-admissions-offer-an-advantage-and-not-just-at-schools-like-harvard


School funding by district: http://proximityone.com/sdc/sdc_mi_detroit.htm


American opinions about tracking students:




Bernie Sander’s call to end standardized testing: https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/01/08/bernie-sanders-education-no-child-left-behind-testing-column/2827348001/


The Danish placement test:




Percentage of students enrolled in higher education / tertiary education 



Percentage of Americans with college degrees:



US’s spending, mandatory and discretionary combined:



The pie chart with colors:



Images of busing: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/14/06/brown-60-milliken-40




How public schools are funded in the US:





How public schools are funded in Germany:



How public schools are funded in Germany: (source for 90 percent figure)



Student loans suck and US tuition is freaking expensive: https://www.forbes.com/sites/camilomaldonado/2018/07/24/price-of-college-increasing-almost-8-times-faster-than-wages/








Free community college:



US pays more for university than Germany, but the campuses are fancier:


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