Does the U.S. really want free education at the university level? Many Americans would have a knee-jerk reaction and say “yes, I’m swimming in debt from my child’s pre-school bills already, not to mention the $100 list of mandatory school supplies.” Free university education would relieve the American public of a rapidly increasing financial burden, but nothing in life is ever “free.” The cost would be evident in future generations of students, a change in educational values, and ultimately a decrease in the quality and value of American degrees.
Argentina’s public university and post-secondary degree programs are largely free and open to the public, without tuition or entrance exams, with the exception of medical school, law school, private institutes, and other highly specialized programs. Attending university in Argentina is therefore as easy as walking through the door, compared to the American system whereby getting into college requires good high school grades, recommendation letters, extra-curricular activities, an array of national exams, essays, forms, loan applications to cover the alarming cost of tuition, etc. While the Argentine system is more egalitarian in its admittance policy, the students often don’t appreciate the wonderful resource they have because it was given to them without asking anything in return. Some of my own adult students have failed year after year because there is no consequence for failure, no monetary cost, no stigma, and no blemish on their academic record. Also, there is often no recognized difference between a student who passes an exam with 95% and one who passes with 60%, because passing the exam is the only requirement to move forward. For some young Argentines, university is a place where you can avoid the job market and escape your parents’ house for free (except the cost of housing and/or transportation), so they are rarely concerned with graduating “on time” or excelling in the classroom, beyond the need to pass exams and complete the course.
The Argentine system is fantastic for students who are naturally motivated, who enter the university with a desire to learn and improve, to open their mouths in class and ask questions, but unmotivated students won’t find much inspiration here. American students on the other hand are typically held (at least somewhat) accountable for their scholastic performance. Failing a class means having to re-take the course, re-take all of the exams, and re-do all of the homework, after re-paying the tuition for those credits, after which the professor will hardly be motivated to write a good recommendation letter for graduate school, an internship, a grant, a job, etc. Conversely, many Argentine public schools allow their students to take a class only once, and then re-take the exam as many times as they please, failing without consequence until they pass.
American colleges and universities not only motivate students by the looming threat of cost, but the entire system is geared toward upward mobility. Performance in high school affects college admissions, the quality of a college degree (or its prestige) affects the prospects for graduate school and the job market, recommendation letters are needed every step of the way, and the “American dream” is achieved by using all of these building blocks to get a better job, and an even better job, etc. Though college tuition is now absolutely crippling, at least our system provides hope for the next stage in life, motivation to keep working harder, and some assurance that hard work will yield tangible results, i.e. a full and well-rounded education, increasingly better paychecks that allow a person to plan for the future, and a sense of relative stability. At the very least, under this essentially capitalist system, schools can remain competitive to provide better degrees and a higher quality of education, recruiting the finest professors and attracting the most motivated and promising students they can find.
Surely a medium exists between these two systems: one being entirely state-controlled, completely free, and accessible to all people regardless of socio-economic background; the other being a more rigorous education resulting in a valuable (and potentially very prestigious) degree costing as much as $200,000, which will be paid back slowly over the following decade or longer. Surely the Argentine system could benefit from requiring more from their students, monetarily and/or academically, and the American system could stand to lower the financial barrier and become significantly more accessible.