Tuition in Wonderland: Higher Education Funding in the United States and Europe


College tuition and student loans have been in the news a great deal in recent years, largely because of the alarming amount of student debt in the United States. Currently, student debt is more than $1.2 Trillion dollars, higher than both credit card debt and auto loans. This debt is no longer held by private lenders. It was taken over by the Federal Government in 2010 when President Obama signed a bill that nationalized all student loans in the United States, making the Department of Education the sole lender. So if you don’t pay, it is not your local Credit Union coming after you, it’s the Feds, and they are not messing around, as Paul Aker found out when he was arrested by seven US Marshals, fully decked out in combat gear and wielding high-powered rifles. His crime? An outstanding student loan of $1,500 from 1987. Aker, however, is not alone—the default rate for student loans hovers around 10% and I think it is safe to say that a sizable portion of this debt will never be repaid.

It is not surprising then, that the issue has been front and center in this year’s Democrat presidential primary, with Bernie Sanders placing “free tuition” as a central plank of his platform, and Hillary Clinton not far behind with her own version of “debt-free tuition.” Prominent cultural commentators on the left have also offered support for this idea, pointing to the higher education system in Europe, where tuition is, for the most part, free. Last year, for example, Michael Moore, the millionaire marxist movie maker, released “Where to Invade Next?” in which he interviews college students in Slovenia, which Moore characterizes as a “magical fairyland” where tuition is free and students, apparently, don’t even know what “student debt” is. More recently, Camille Paglia, the insurgent proto-feminist libertarian, also advocated for free tuition and pointed, similarly, to the European system as an example of the viability (inevitability?) of free tuition. Is there free tuition in European countries?  For the most part, the answer is “yes,” but of course, it is a bit more complicated than that; the Americans touting the European system are not telling us the whole story.

In 2013, I received a Fulbright Award from the US State Department to spend my sabbatical teaching in Graz, Austria at the Kunstuniversität Graz (KUG, “Graz University of the Arts”). I taught a class in the KUG Jazz Institute, but a significant portion of my Fulbright work was centered on a scholarship project which focused on studying jazz pedagogy and jazz styles in North America and Europe. To gather the data, I studied the curricula of leading jazz departments in Europe and North America, I surveyed jazz educators and jazz musicians on both continents, and I also interviewed dozens of artists and educators as well.

My intent was to ask professionals in the field whether there had emerged, as renowned jazz writer Stuart Nicholson suggests, a style of jazz that was uniquely “European.” If so, how does this style differ from American jazz, and do the pedagogical systems reflect or support these differences? The results were interesting, surprising,  and, in some cases, quite provocative. It was apparent from my first day at KUG that the differences in pedagogy and higher education were inextricably linked to the differences in the funding models between the two continents, which became part of my study.

Teaching in Austria
The class I taught was “Jazz Theory” and it was a freshman class in the fall semester, so these were students in their first classes at university. In the first class, I gave a few assessment tests to gauge their level of preparedness and I was astounded by how strong their foundational skills were. (I won’t go into details here, but I would say that they were similar to the students found entering our most elite music schools here in North America, and far surpassed the level of most students graduating from 2nd- and 3rd-tier schools.) Another surprise was the diversity found in this small group of about 20 students—there were at least nine different countries represented: Hungary, Germany, China, United States, Turkey, Italy, Romania, Brazil, and, of course, Austria. This led me to start asking some questions about tuition, in particular, I asked about the costs for students from other countries to attend university in Austria. In the United States, there are significantly higher costs for students to attend college in another state. As parents of college students know very well, “out-of-state tuition” is, on average, more than double the cost of in-state tuition. When I asked about “out of country tuition” it generated a puzzled response (much like the one from the Slovenian students who were asked about their “student debt” by Michael Moore in his film): “Out of country tuition?  We don’t pay any tuition, we just have to pay an administrative fee of €800 per year.”  I was flabbergasted—how is it possible for students from all over the world to go to university in Austria for a nominal administrative fee, subsidized almost entirely by the Austrian government? Why would Austria do that, and how can they afford it?

Why do they subsidize tuition for foreigners?
As a Fulbright Scholar, I took part in several activities that included meeting members of Austria’s government, and I took the opportunity to ask them about this “Why do you fund foreigners’ tuition at Austrian universities?” The answer was given in a “matter of fact” manner, as if it were obvious: “Because we want the best artists in our country. We value art and culture, it is part of our lives and we support it because it is important to us, vital in fact.” I found this to be incredible, not only because of the heart-warming content, but because it was sincere, not a contrived political sound-bite for media consumption.

How can they afford it?
This is where the story of free tuition became a bit more complicated, but the answer is obvious—like everything else in a socialist setting, services have to be rationed, and that is exactly what they do with higher education: they ration it. This is the part that is conveniently (and I suspect, intentionally) left out of the simplistic narrative being told by Clinton, Sanders, Moore, and others.

The extent to which is rationed, in music education at least, was surprising. I became aware of it when I started interviewing professors about the audition process at their schools and I asked them how many students audition for each instrument and how many can they accept? In the US, at most schools, professors in the performing arts spend a great deal of time and energy “recruiting” students and even with vigorous outreach, most have difficulty finding enough students on each instrument to provide them with full-time teaching loads, much less to properly staff the ever-growing number of ensembles in most music departments. Rationing solves that problem. At one school in Europe, I asked how many piano students auditioned in the previous year, and the answer was “140.”  Out of those 140 applicants, only two were accepted. When I asked about the criteria for acceptance, the professor told me: “We only accept students who are our peers–in other words, the student needs to play well enough to perform with the faculty. If none of the applicants are at that level, then we don’t accept anyone.” (To restate my disclaimer one last time, the situation is probably similar in the United States for the elite universities and conservatories, which constitute perhaps 5% of all the music schools in the country.)

Suffice to say that is not easy to get into a music program in Europe, especially when the competition is not just from the state, the region, or the country—students compete for very limited openings with students from all over the world. If it is this difficult for music students, you can imagine the difficulty students have being accepted into other fields like Engineering, Medicine, Nursing, Law, and other disciplines with clear career paths after graduation. Suffice to say, the standards in Europe in all areas are extremely high.

Whether consciously or not, these European countries have decided that they need a certain, limited number of, for example, pianists and saxophonists in order to satisfy the nation’s cultural and artistic needs and they want those students to be the very best that the world can offer. They fund that number and no more and the result is that the outstanding students that are accepted do not incur significant costs for their education.

To compare the two systems, I decided to compare the two places I was teaching and working in–Austria, a nation-state within the European Union, and my home state of Michigan. In terms of population, the two are somewhat similar. Austria has approximately 8.6 Million citizens and Michigan has about 9.9 Million, but Austria is much more densely populated. Austria is one-third the size of Michigan, but has only 15% less population. I then looked at the total number of universities that offer a professional music degree (Bachelor of Music) in each. Here is how the two compare:

In Michigan, there are 27 Institutions that offer Bachelors Degrees in Music, ten of which are public, state-sponsored universities, and seventeen are private colleges. (This does not include several private religious institutions that offer music degrees as well as several others that offer non-professional music degrees.)

Institutions offering Bachelors Degrees in Music in Michigan

State Sponsored:
Grand Valley State University
Central Michigan University
Western Michigan University
Michigan State University
University of Michigan
Eastern Michigan University
Oakland University
Saginaw Valley University
University of Michigan-Flint
Wayne State University
Northern Michigan University

Private Colleges:
Hope College
Aquinas College
Calvin College Madonna University
Adrian College
Albion College
Concordia College
Cornerstone University
Hillsdale College
Kalamazoo College
Marygrove College
Rochester College
Siena Heights University
Spring Arbor College
Andrews University
Alma College

In stark contrast, Austria has only five universities that offer professional music degrees.

Institutions offering Bachelors Degrees in Music in Austria
Kunstuniversität Graz (University of the Performing Arts, Graz)
Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien (University for Music and the
Performing Arts, Vienna)
Konservatorium Wien Privatuniversität (Vienna Conservatory)
Anton-Bruckner-Privatuniversität Linz (Anton Bruckner Academy)
Universität Mozarteum Salzburg (Mozarteum University, Salzburg)

With only 15% more population, Michigan has a staggering 440% more music degree programs available to its citizens. Viewed another way, if Michigan had the same number of music programs available per capita as Austria, there would only be five or six institutions offering music degrees. 21 of the 27 programs or institutions would be gone. Even if only the state-sponsored schools were included, there would still be 100% more music programs available.

This is what rationing looks in a free tuition environment. It ensures that the students admitted are extremely qualified for what is, in reality, a “scholarship” they are receiving from the government. In order for this to work, however, the government has to decide how many graduates they want in each discipline and that number is reflected in the number of openings there are in any given field of study. The European socialists are indeed generous, but they are also realists—they don’t need a thousand lute players graduating every year. This type of rationing occurs not only in education, but in their free health care system and in their welfare system. For example, many Austrians I met were curious about US social policies, which I discussed with them frequently. At the time, US unemployment insurance benefits were available for over 70 weeks, while it was only 16 weeks in Austria. When I told the Austrians, the response was always the same: “Are you crazy? Do you not understand human nature? People will start looking for a job four weeks before their insurance benefits expire!”

Human nature, indeed, does come into play in this discussion. College student support for Sanders is strong (I see the t-shirts and the hats and the bumper stickers every day) and it is easily explained—he’s offering “free tuition” which is an easy sell to those who are struggling with tuition. When I was about 20, I voted for the first time in my native Canada and I voted NDP (basically the Canadian Socialist Party) because they were promising to lower my car insurance. I guess I was a “one-issue” voter with no understanding of how the insurance industry worked, and how it couldn’t work with arbitrary insurance rates that aren’t linked to actuarial statistics; instead, those rates would be arbitrarily set by a political party who was promising, in effect, cash for votes.

I don’t think that Sanders is cynical or insincere, in fact I am sure the opposite is true. I think he actually believes he could make tuition free in the United States, and perhaps he could. For that to happen, however, the country would have to adopt some of the same restraining mechanisms that are in place in the European system to ration the benefit. This would mean closing hundreds of universities across the country, consolidating or eliminating hundreds of programs, and making grown-up decisions on how many graduates in each field are needed. This does not seem to be something that we are willing to do, even in more practical fields like law, where the oversupply of lawyers is collapsing the career prospects of graduates.

The European system is not a sampler platter where you can take one aspect—free tuition—and remove it from the myriad other structures that support it and that are, in turn, supported by it. Free tuition would mean that the real  “burn” most students would be feeling would happen after they open their envelopes from Utopia University and find form letter informing them that they haven’t been accepted into college. If you want free tuition, European-style, then you also need to accept the fact that college will then become severely rationed, with only the best students being admitted. This seems to fly in the face of  American notions of fairness and equality and would be a very tough pill to swallow here, so perhaps the US system is actually better for the US where, culturally, we aspire for everyone to have a college education. Those clamoring to import the European model, if successful, may then find themselves unhappier then they are now. As Oscar Wilde famously said “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”; this may be an instance when Wilde’s jaded maxim actually applies.


Artwork “The Ivory Tower Incident” is used by kind permission of Nick Agin.

About FraKathustra

2 Responses to “Tuition in Wonderland: Higher Education Funding in the United States and Europe”

  1. Yes, it’s an interesting predicament. Perhaps better to not get into a university in the first place than get a degree and not be able to find a job once you’re Xk in debt? Harsh for the aspiring college students? Maybe. Harsher than crippling debt and no job after years of study? Not sure.
    On the flip side, some less qualified students, once actually in uni can do great work and quickly build on their talent.

    • Thanks Holly…It’s an uncomfortable discussion in this country, but it is one we need to have. It also nudges people into various professions and skilled trades, which are highly respected in Europe, but here, we somehow denigrate those, which makes no sense to me whatsoever. Regardless, it is a discussion we should have, because the economics of it will eventually force us to have it–better to get ahead of that and deal with it proactively rather than reactively, but that is unlikely–while the zero interest money flows, there will be little motivation to face the looming crisis ahead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: