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What The U.S. Can Learn From Free College In Chile

Nov 25, 2019
Originally published on December 10, 2019 3:30 pm

So poor was the education she received at her public high school, Pilar Vega Martinez had to take an extra year to study for the Prueba de Selección Universitaria — the Chilean version of the SAT.

The work paid off. Her score on the exam was good enough to get her into the top-rated University of Chile. Vega is now in her third year, studying to be a nurse. And thanks to an important change in government policy, life got easier after that: She didn't have to pay.

That's because Chile has made college tuition-free — through a policy called gratuidad — after years of angry public protests about escalating tuition and student loan debt and the gulf in quality between the institutions attended by the wealthiest and the poorest students.

It's a version of "free college" along the lines of what many in the United States are talking about — including several Democratic candidates for president.

Chile's educational system has significant parallels with that of the U.S.: a robust sector of private colleges alongside public universities; high college tuition; and, before gratuidad, significant student loan debt.

That makes it a prime test case for the American version of the idea.

Among other things, what has happened in Chile proves that free tuition is politically popular.

In 2013, Michelle Bachelet, then the socialist candidate for president, made it a centerpiece of her campaign and won by a 2-to-1 margin; several years later, the Chilean Congress passed it by a vote of 92-2. Sebastián Piñera, the conservative who succeeded Bachelet, has continued the policy.

And it's a popular idea in the U.S., too: Seventy-one percent of Americans support free tuition at public universities or colleges for students who are academically qualified, according to a survey by PSB Research for the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

A guard inside the National Congress of Chile, in Valparaiso. In 2016, the Chilean Congress passed gratuidad — "free college" — by a vote of 92-2.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

How it came to be

A driving force behind the move to gratuidad in Chile was deep socioeconomic divisions in society, a remnant of Chile's authoritarian government that ruled the country from 1973 to 1990.

In 2011, the frustrations and anger boiled over into strikes and protests. Demonstrators marched against high college costs and large amounts of personal debt from student loans.

The frustrations then were similar to those that have sparked political protests in recent weeks.

"In Chile, you can't move things" without people in the streets explains Miguel Crispi, who is now a deputy, or member, of the Chilean Congress.

Back in 2011, the debate was all about education.

Chileans, over their breakfasts, "were talking about inequality," says Crispi, who was a student leader during those protests. He recalls whole families "talking about, 'How can we afford a higher education? Is it fair to go into debt for studying?' "

As in the U.S., the movement rose above financial concerns about paying for college to a broader, philosophical principle: Higher education is a right.

"The most important way of being free is having the tools for doing what you want to do in life. That's education," says Crispi. "It's about being free or having the chance to be free."

It's expensive

When gratuidad finally began in Chile, lawmakers quickly realized that the ambitious program — free tuition for everyone — costs a lot, even in a country with just over 5% the population of the U.S. It became clear the program had to be scaled down and delayed, with complex restrictions added.

The same thing has happened to free-college proposals in the U.S.: A campaign promise by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to make community college in that state tuition-free, for instance, had to be reduced to a pilot program. And the free-tuition plan in New York state set an income limit for recipients.

In Chile, the biggest cost-saving measure was reducing the number of students who qualified. College would not be free for everyone but for the poorest Chileans — only those whose families were in the bottom half of the income range.

Students at the University of Chile play soccer on campus.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Gratuidad has since been expanded to include the bottom 60%. Even after those revisions, the price tag for Chilean taxpayers is $1.5 billion a year. (In the U.S., Sen. Bernie Sanders' plan to make two- and four-year college free for everyone — regardless of income — is projected to cost the government $47 billion per year.)

Is it working?

Despite the investment in Chile, the reform is making only slow progress toward its primary goal: expanding access to higher education for the lowest-income students. That's because nearly 90% of those low-income students already had financial aid before gratuidad.

But looked at another way, the prospect of free tuition does inspire students to enroll in college who might not have considered it previously. A recent report found that 15% of Chilean students in the program would have otherwise not sought a college education. And Chileans who get free tuition are also slightly less likely to drop out than their classmates who don't, the government has found.

"For some families, the assurance that they are not going to be facing any payment at all makes a difference in their willingness to take the chance and have their kid apply," says Andrés Bernasconi, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile who studies gratuidad.

Pedro Córdova Guerra, 55, and his oldest daughter, Sue-lyn Córdova Freire, 31 at their home on the outskirts of Santiago. When Córdova Guerra was growing up, college wasn't an option. It's different for his children.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

When Pedro Córdova Guerra, 55, was growing up in the suburbs of Santiago, he didn't even let himself dream about college. His family was poor, and in his mind, college was only for the wealthy. "Back in my time, there were no opportunities," he says. "I used to be bitter that I didn't get a chance to go to school. It was very difficult."

He says he lived through that big shift in thinking: "There were new ideals around education. ... We expect it to be a right."

And his children are living that ideal. His middle daughter, Verónica Córdova Freire, is using gratuidad to study mechanical engineering at the University of Santiago.

But even with free tuition, Verónica tells us she is still struggling financially. To save money, she lives at home with her parents and two siblings.

Even with free tuition, Verónica is still struggling financially. To save money, she lives at home with her parents and two siblings.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

She rides a bus to campus, which takes about 2 1/2 hours each day. "That's two hours I'm not sleeping, not studying," she says. Her school helps pay for lunch, but it's not enough; she eats most meals at home with her family.

Many students we talked with face the same challenges. Gratuidad doesn't cover other costs, including rent, food, books and transportation.

The Córdovas are very close — the family eats most meals together.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Most free-tuition programs in the U.S. don't cover those expenses either. And because they don't, two of the most ambitious programs, in Tennessee and New York state, have failed to improve affordability for low-income students, according to a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

In fact, that report found, in Tennessee it was higher-income students who benefited, getting an average of nearly $1,500 each to help them pay for college educations their families could already afford.

The length it covers

Beyond the financial limitations, however, students in Chile have another big complaint about gratuidad: the time limit. The program requires students to complete their degrees, or courses of study, on time. For example, a traditional four-year degree must be completed in that time.

Francheska Acuña leaves the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile campus.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

One expert likened it to a time bomb and, sure enough, this year 27,000 of the students who had been enjoying free tuition came to the end of their eligibility before they graduated, according to the University of Chile Student Federation Research Center.

Pilar Vega Martinez, who is in her third year of studying to be a nurse, says that last year she got bronchitis and missed weeks of school. "I was doing really well," she says, but now, it will take her longer to finish than gratuidad will pay for.

"I'm still thinking about how I'm going to pay for that last year," she says in Spanish during a study break in the university's library. "I've had to work while studying to start saving money."

Students in Chile take 10% to 30% longer than the prescribed time, on average, to finish their degrees, the government says. That mirrors what happens in the United States, where many students need, for example, five or six years or more to complete a bachelor's degree.

"In 2011 the principal problem was that gratuidad didn't exist," says Ximena Donoso Rochabrunt, who just finished law school and is studying for the equivalent of the bar exam. "And people are still mad that its existence is only partial."

The impact on private universities

Private colleges in Chile, which can participate in gratuidad if they choose, are facing a financial squeeze because the government limits the tuition they can charge. In the first year, only a few private institutions took part, since they have relatively high tuition and serve wealthier students whose families' incomes are too high to qualify anyway.

For those institutions that do sign on, "costs are going to go up and income is going to stay very still," says Claudio Ruff, rector of the private Universidad Bernardo O'Higgins and president of the national association of private universities. His office overlooks a grassy quad, with a portrait of O'Higgins, the 19th century Chilean independence leader, on the wall and opera music playing in the background.

It's hard to compete with free, says Claudio Ruff, rector of the private Universidad Bernardo O'Higgins and president of the national association of private universities.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Already, Ruff says, 15 private universities and colleges have closed or are in the process of closing because it's hard to compete with "free."

Schools like his that remain but have opted out of gratuidad are cutting money-losing programs, offering discounts and scholarships and adding research to attract more students, including international ones.

The colleges have largely themselves to blame for this predicament, argues Luis Felipe Jiménez Leighton, an economist and former adviser to the Education Ministry who helped negotiate gratuidad. Their high fees helped drive the protests that resulted in the free-tuition system.

"Fat cats," he called them. "Now [they] have to get lean. And that's a consequence of gratuidad that we didn't intend, but it's a byproduct and to some extent it's a welcome byproduct."

Andrés Bello National University is a private university in Santigao that does not participate in the gratuidad program.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Some private institutions in Chile may have gotten fat, concedes Ruff. "But not any more. Private universities spend more money [than public ones], but they spend it better." Besides, he adds, private universities can "tighten their belts faster."

Looking ahead

As it stands now, gratuidad is set to expand if and when tax revenues allow. But the argument in Chile now is over whether it should.

Three years in, has it been worth it? Many, like Rosa Devés, say yes. Devés is a vice president for academic affairs at the University of Chile.

Rosa Devés, a vice president for academic affairs at the University of Chile, helped write the gratuidad law. "I feel quite proud of them," she says. "It may be just words but still they are the correct words."
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

When some people ask "why am I going to pay for a rich person to go to university?" her answer is: "You're not paying for the rich person. You're paying for the institution that will have all the representation of the society in it."

But Chile simply may not be able to afford that, says Leighton, the economist. "We're not in a state of abundance where we can finance everything," he says. "You have to prioritize some things and in the process to leave somebody in and somebody out."

Right now, 68% of Chileans say they are against extending free tuition to everyone, preferring that only people in the bottom 70% of income be covered, one poll found.

Conservatives, who now hold a majority in government, would prefer to put more money into primary and secondary education, where inequalities grow.

"Free tuition is not the only solution for getting more vulnerable students into university or into higher education," notes Jaime Bellolio, a conservative deputy in Congress who serves on the education committee. Regardless of free tuition, he explains, students still need the academic preparation if they are to gain admission into top universities.

"If you want to have more vulnerable students in good universities and good professional institutes you have to level up the quality of education before they come."

He acknowledges that this point is not as politically catchy as "free tuition": "It's not as good for the elections, but it is better for the long run, and it's better public policy. Those first years are the ones that make all the difference."

Valparaiso, the city in Chile that houses the National Congress of Chile, where gratuidad became law.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Still, Devés argues that Chile has made big steps forward since Chileans took to the streets eight years ago.

"The path is not perfect," she says, pulling out a copy of the actual statute. Devés helped write the law and has highlighted some of her favorite parts. She tears up as she reads the words aloud. Translated from Spanish:

"The law establishes that higher education is right, that should be within reach of all people, in accord with their abilities and merits."

"I feel quite proud," she says. "It may be just words, but still, they are the correct words."

The work isn't finished yet, she adds, but gratuidad is "a very important starting point."

This story about tuition-free colleges was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Copyright 2020 The Hechinger Report. To see more, visit The Hechinger Report.


Should higher education be free? One country, Chile, has tried to make free college work, and as NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports from Santiago, Chile's experience offers some surprising lessons.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When Pedro Cordova was growing up in the suburbs of Santiago, he didn't even let himself dream about college. His family was poor, and college, he thought, was only for wealthy Chileans.

PEDRO CORDOVA GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Not having opportunities, it made him bitter.

CORDOVA GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Today, that story is different for his children. They did dream about college, and Veronica, his middle daughter, she's at the University of Santiago studying for free, part of the national free college program here. It's called gratuidad. And when I asked Pedro about what this means, he beams with pride. He says he lived through a change in perspective in Chile. He mentions this idea that's pretty pervasive here - that college is a right.

CORDOVA GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: That idea - it's how free college came to be here in Chile. In 2011 and 2012, it captivated the entire country. Thousands protested in the streets.



NADWORNY: The message spread like wildfire.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: The morning talk shows began leading with the idea that education is a right.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Michelle Bachelet, then running for president of Chile, she made it the center of her campaign. And there's an important lesson for the U.S. here - politically, free college is a pretty popular idea. Bachelet was elected, and the Chilean Congress passed free college, called gratuidad, into law - 92 votes to 2.


NADWORNY: But free college tuition costs a lot. In Chile, preliminary estimates put it at $5 billion a year. And Chile is a lot smaller than the U.S., where some plans are projected to cost closer to $50 billion a year. Ultimately, Chile's Congress didn't have the money to pay for everyone. So today, it only covers low-income students.

PILAR VEGA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Pilar Vega is a nursing student at the University of Chile, and she qualifies for gratuidad and uses it to pay for her studies. As we walk around her Santiago campus, we pass a student jam session.


NADWORNY: There's a rousing pingpong tournament and a team of students playing soccer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Pilar explains how vital gratuidad is for her. That's why she's here.

VEGA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: She says without free tuition, she wouldn't have been able to go to college at all. But she brings up this other way that Chile cut back on gratuidad. Students have a set amount of time to enjoy the benefit. So if you're in a degree program that's four years, that's how long you have your free tuition for. A two-year program - you get two years. This is an important lesson for the U.S., where most students actually take longer to earn a degree than they're supposed to. During Pilar's second year of school, she had some health issues, and she had to take time off to get healthy.

VEGA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: She'll now need an extra year to finish her degree, but she won't have an extra year of free tuition to do it.

VEGA MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: She's working while in school to start saving up for that final year. This time restriction - it's a big issue for students. Just this year, 27,000 Chilean students who had been enjoying free tuition lost their eligibility before they finished their degree. Another lesson from Chile's free college program - not all universities opt in.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in French).

NADWORNY: At the Universidad Bernardo O'Higgins, a private university in Santiago, emanating from the president's office is an aria from the French opera "Le Cid."


NADWORNY: Claudio Ruff, the president here and the head of the association of private universities in Chile, is a big opera fan. He says listening to it has calmed him during what he describes as a stressful time.

CLAUDIO RUFF: Like the former phrase in United States - Houston, we have a problem.


RUFF: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: The problem for Ruff and other presidents of private universities is gratuidad. Like the U.S., Chile has a robust private college market, and many of them decided not to take gratuidad. So students there pay tuition.

RUFF: It's a dilemma.

NADWORNY: Competing against free can be hard. Ruff says about 15 colleges have closed because of this. Others are flourishing. Their student body is wealthy, and they don't qualify for gratuidad anyways. This is a concern in the U.S., too. Most free college proposals would apply only to public universities. That is where most students go, but it would potentially reinforce inequality, with lower-income students attending state schools and wealthy students paying for elite privates, like the Ivies (ph).

At Pedro Cordova's house, he invites us in to meet his family.

Thank you for letting us come.

Inside, his wife Ketty is chopping chives. Veronica, their youngest daughter, has made homemade noodles.


NADWORNY: She's using gratuidad to study mechanical engineering at the University of Santiago.

CORDOVA FREIRE: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Over lunch, Veronica raises another big issue - the program just covers tuition, nothing else.

CORDOVA FREIRE: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Living here at home, it means a 2 1/2-hour commute.

CORDOVA FREIRE: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: That's time she's not sleeping and not studying. Research has found these other costs to college - a place to stay, bus fare, food and books - they can be a major barrier. Free tuition only goes so far. But gratuidad - it's helping a lot of people. Veronica is one of 200,000 Chilean students who benefit from the free college program, despite the limitations. She plans to graduate with no debt. Still, gratuidad hasn't actually increased the number of low-income students who are enrolled in colleges in Chile.

ROSA DEVES: So you could look at that and say they have no effect. It hasn't changed the structure.

NADWORNY: Rosa Deves is the vice president for academic affairs at the University of Chile, and she helped craft gratuidad into law. She points to other factors that have limited access - a poorly funded public K-12 system, competitive admissions. Just because tuition is free, you still have to get in. And remember - gratuidad doesn't cover things like food, housing and transportation.

DEVES: It's not just money. I mean, you cannot solve this problem with gratuity alone.

NADWORNY: But gratuity, or free tuition, it does influence students who may never have considered college before to enroll. That's according to research from the Chilean government. They've also found students who get free tuition are slightly less likely to drop out than their classmates who don't. So I asked Deves - has this made a difference? To answer, she pulls out her copy of the law, with her favorite parts highlighted.

DEVES: I will read the first article and the first phrase, which is higher education is a right.

NADWORNY: Education is a right - it says it right there in the 2016 law. It's no longer just an idea, she says - it's real.

DEVES: To know, to feel, while you study, that it is your right and that next year you will not have to pay. And it may be words, but they are the correct words.

NADWORNY: And that, she says, is a very important starting point.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.

SHAPIRO: And this story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT'S "EYES BE CLOSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.