Higher Education

In Norway, where college is free, children of uneducated parents still don’t go

Advocates see it as a case study proving that the problem isn’t solely about money

Curt Rice, incoming president of Oslo and Akershus University College, or HiOA.

Curt Rice, incoming president of Oslo and Akershus University College, or HiOA.

OSLO—There’s a saying in famously egalitarian Norway that Curt Rice, the American-born incoming president of the country’s third-biggest university, likes to rattle off: “We’re all sitting in the same boat.”

What it means, said Rice, is that, “To single out anyone, we’re against that. That just does not sit well in the Norwegian soul.”

So all Norwegians have the same tuition-free access to college, no matter what their backgrounds. Every student gets the same allowance for living expenses.

But something surprising is happening in Norway, which explains a similar phenomenon in the United States that has been thwarting efforts to increase the number of Americans pursuing higher education.

Even though tuition is almost completely free here, Norwegians whose parents did not go to college are just as unlikely to go themselves as Americans whose parents did not go to college.

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This conundrum demonstrates a critical point that’s widely misunderstood, according to higher-education experts: money is not the only thing keeping first-generation students from seeking degrees.

“This is almost a laboratory case, where we get to control one factor — namely, cost — and see what happens,” said Rice, who in August will take over as head of Norway’s Oslo and Akershus University College.

And what happens is that — even though it’s essentially free — only 14 percent of children from the least-educated families in Norway go to college, compared to 58 percent of children from the most-educated families, according to an analysis by a Norwegian education researcher, Elisabeth Hovdhaugen.

That’s almost exactly the same proportion as in the United States, where the cost of college is borne largely by students and their families, and where the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation reports that only 13 percent of children of parents without higher educations end up getting degrees themselves.

“I don’t think that people do understand it’s not about money,” said John Gomperts, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of organizations trying to steer more young people to and through college in the U.S.

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It’s a huge issue, considering that fully one-third of five- to 17-year-olds in the United States have parents who did not go to college, the College Board reports, at a time when policymakers are trying to increase the number of Americans with degrees. They’ll be needed to fill the 65 percent of jobs by 2020 that will require some sort of college or university training, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education in the Workforce.

“Norway is an interesting window into this,” Gomperts said. “If you come from a background where everyone goes to college, there’s no question that you’ll go to college. But if you grew up in a challenging community where nobody went to or succeeded in college, there’s no one at home who is going to know how to navigate the system. It takes the right amount of social preparation and support. That’s the magic.”

The Norwegian system eliminates some obstacles in addition to cost. Except for kindergarten, primary and secondary schools are funded nationally, not locally, for example, so there’s ostensibly no difference in education quality between higher- and lower-income towns and cities, as there might be between wealthy suburban and poor urban districts in the United States. And the Norwegian funding system is very easy to understand, while the American system of grants and loans is complex and often confusing, even to families with college-going experience.

But the principle of social equality in Norway also means that there are no programs providing academic support to first-generation or low-income students in college, although there are a few for immigrants and women in fields in which they are underrepresented.

Related: Confusing college financial-aid letters leave students, parents adrift

“Helping students from low socioeconomic status does not happen at all,” Hovdhaugen said in her office at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, across the street from the royal palace in Oslo. “It’s the idea of the equitable society, and that students are considered adults, independent of their parents. You could almost turn it around and say that if the students whose parents with high income were not eligible for support, that would be judged as very unfair.”

Also, because wages remain high for blue-collar occupations, she said, there’s less of a financial incentive for some Norwegians to bother with college, since they can get jobs more quickly, and earn almost as much money, working as plumbers or electricians. American advocates for higher education worry that a similar thing might be happening in the U.S., as people increasingly question the return on investment for degrees; a new federal report shows that the average annual earnings of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees actually fell from $53,210 in 2000 to $46,900 in 2012, even as tuition continued to rise.

“A bachelor’s degree in the U.S. has been seen as one serious option for getting into the middle class, whereas in Norway everything is a ticket into the middle class, because everyone is in the middle class,” Rice said. “It’s now less clear that it really is a ticket into the middle class in the U.S.”

Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite

American students’ scores on the SAT and other college entrance exams also correlate with the level of their parents’ educations; the better-educated a student’s parents, the higher he or she scores on the tests, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT.

Since education affects income, children whose parents didn’t go to college are also unlikely to be well off, said Margaret Cahalan, vice president for research at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. And families that are less well off are statistically more likely to face health problems, problems with the law and unplanned pregnancies, among other challenges.

Students from such backgrounds “are going to be on average facing more obstacles than a student who comes from a more advantaged background,” including nonfinancial ones, Cahalan said.

With a third of U.S. primary and secondary school students now coming from families without higher educations, the most important lesson is that cultural, and not just economic, considerations may keep many of them from going on to college.

Young people from backgrounds such as these, when considering whether or not to go to college, often “don’t even really know that they can go to the library and borrow books” instead of buying them, said Gomperts.

“How do you know that? You’re not born knowing such a thing. And who’s going to tell you? Stripping away the money piece shows how complicated this is.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education… See Archive