The high cost of a welfare state's 'free' education: Why I don’t mind paying for college

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With these smart tips, parents of new college students can prepare for an exciting new journey
With these smart tips, parents of new college students can prepare for an exciting new journey

In 2003, my wife and I moved from New York to Finland with the intention of raising our newborn son in Helsinki, my hometown. We made the decision because we were looking for a better work-life balance. After three years, we moved back to the United States because we missed the American lifestyle. We found the Finnish civil society unfriendly and staid by comparison. However, by leaving Finland, we gave up many benefits of living in a Nordic welfare state, such as free college education for our son.

This fall, he will begin his studies as a freshman at the University of Michigan, the top public university in the United States. Although we are pleased with his educational path, it does indeed come with a price tag. All said and done, we expect to shell out nearly $150,000 for the privilege of him earning the BA degree.

To put this in perspective, our annual college payments approximate the U.S. median personal income. For out-of-state students, University of Michigan charges more than twice as much.

Despite the significant financial burden, I do not regret our decision to leave Finland. It was always pretty clear that, as long as he had the motivation and ability, my son would be able to receive a high-quality college education in America. Had he not been accepted in the flagship university of his home state, he could have attended Michigan State University – where he was also admitted – or Wayne State University, where I teach. Both are research universities with world-class faculty and comprehensive programs of undergraduate learning.

In addition, there are several well-regarded regional public universities in Michigan. Although none is free to most students, the cost is adjusted for household income and there are many institutional grants, such that many students from low-income families can indeed get a free ride.

Punishing kids for being kids

By contrast, the path to university education in Finland is far less certain. First, similar to other European countries, the Finnish educational system sorts students into two academic tracks at the transition to upper-secondary school (age 15). Based on their academic ability and aspirations, some students are streamed into the vocational track, while others choose the “general” track. In general, only the latter path leads to the national matriculation exam – the passing of which is typically the first step toward college admission.

Former college admissions counselor: Does your first-choice college have you on the waitlist? You better come up with a Plan B.

These two tracks are not merely different curricular orientations within the same school. Vocational schools are entirely separate institutions from the academically focused "Gymnasium" – as the college preparatory track is called in Germany. A majority of Finnish boys choose the vocational track, which effectively eliminates their chances of ever making the transition to university-level education.

Jukka Savolainen
Jukka Savolainen

Vocational track was the path taken by one of my nephews, who just was not that into school at 14 years of age – go figure! I am not a fan of this aspect of the Finnish system. It seems excessively harsh to close off opportunities for college education simply because you were not academically oriented in your early-to-mid teens. There is little room for late-bloomers under this regime. In Germany, tracking occurs even earlier, after only four years of schooling, when students are at 10 years of age.

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Second, even among those in the appropriate track of upper-secondary school, only a small minority of students are admitted in universities in Finland. Although my other nephew did pass the matriculation exam, he has been unable to secure a placement in any institution of tertiary education. He is not alone. Data from Statistics Finland show that, in 2019, 70% of Finnish students did not enroll in any degree program of higher education in the fall semester after passing their exam.

Cut-throat admissions

Moreover, unlike their American peers, Finnish high school graduates are expected to already know, at the point of application, which area of study they wish to focus on in college. They do not merely apply to, say, University of Helsinki; they must apply for admission to a specific academic program within the college. For example, if they want to study sociology – like I did back in the day – they must contend with the acceptance rate of 3%. By way of comparison, it is easier, statistically speaking, to get into Harvard (5%), Princeton (6%) or Yale (6%) than it is to become a sociology major at the University of Helsinki.

A nation still divided: My college years were in the tumultuous 1960s. Graduates today must keep idealism alive.

The acceptance rate for University of Michigan is more than 20%. I am grateful my son was admitted into one of the best institutions of undergraduate education in the country despite not being the valedictorian of his high school class. I suspect that, in Finland, his altogether impressive academic record would not have been enough to secure entry into any one of the leading research universities in the country. Depending on how he performed in his early-to-mid teens, he might even have been “sentenced” to the vocational track at age 15.

Don’t get me wrong, the American system of higher education remains far too costly for the majority of Americans. I strongly support efforts to make college more affordable. Also, like most people, I would rather pay less than more for any product, including college education.

However, given the choice, I pick the American system of higher education over the Finnish one every time. The Finnish system is way too cut-throat and unforgiving, dare I say, Darwinistic.

Jukka Savolainen is a professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Finland. Follow him on Twitter: @JukkaSavo

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Finland's 'free' college comes at high cost to students, especially boys

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