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February 06, 2004

College Is Different Over There

FROM PROGRESSIVE SOCIALIST EUROPE come reports of university students demonstrating because their free pass to college is being threatened. Several European governments have begun discussing plans to raise tuition fees—or implement them for the first time—as a method of covering the rising costs of university services.

This sometimes shrill and surly sense of entitlement affected by European university students is very difficult for Americans to comprehend. In the States, students and their parents are accustomed to paying a significant portion of college expenses. And if a work-study, grant or scholarship can be obtained, we are usually appreciative for the help.

Not so in Europe, where higher education is seen as a public good with free or nominal tuition--usually accompanied by government stipends to cover living costs. The idea of asking students or their families to contribute to university costs has created widespread protests.

Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, a British group that has organized dozens of demonstrations against tuition fees, was quoted as saying, “Obviously there is a university funding crisis, but we think the government should go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get the money through more progressive taxation. Students shouldn't contribute in any way.”

The key phrase in this diatribe was “more progressive taxation.” Whatever does she mean by that? Sure enough, in her next breath, she endorses the old Robin Hood scheme of fleecing the rich. “If you get a well-paid job after you graduate, you'll pay more through your taxes,” she said.

Meanwhile, a student at Lund University in Sweden said, “There should be no fees charged for students in any way at all.” Is this Shangri-La or what?

Admittedly, there is one stark—and massive—difference between the American and European university systems that makes direct comparisons very difficult. Unlike American universities, with their tens and hundreds of millions in endowments and alumni giving, European universities have no concept of the college fund. Furthermore, the European schools have absolutely nothing like the huge athletics programs in the States to entice generous alumni giving.

In France and Germany, there is not only opposition to proposals for tuition increases, but also protests against initiatives to implement admission selectivity standards. In France and Germany high school graduates are guaranteed entry into any university of their choice. That would seem to pull all universities toward the mediocrity level. Imagine what would happen to the standards at Yale and Stanford if high school graduates with 700 SAT’s were guaranteed entry?

There has been talk of establishing exclusive "elite universities" in Germany—“the German Harvard or the German M.I.T.,” said a student at Aachen University in Germany.

Raphaël Chambon, a fourth-year history student at the Sorbonne and a leader of UNEF, the largest French student union, said, “We think that universities should be free, and without any selection.”

Such sentiments are completely foreign to American students and parents busting hump to get into the best school they can (and getting home equity loans and living lean to pay for it all). Tutors, prep schools, multiple SAT’s, honors courses, coaches, anxiety, $37,000 tuition bills (times four), etc.
Who knows?

Maybe the Europeans have the right idea.

(excerpted from the NY Times 2-4-04 with added commentary by College Athletics Clips)

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