SANTIAGO, Chile — 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 PSU was good enough to get her into the top-rated University of Chile. And thanks to an important change in government policy, life got easier after that: She didn’t have to pay.
Chile has made college tuition-free, 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 poorest students.
And if those problems echo the complaints that are piling up about higher education in the United States, the experience in Chile also offers important lessons about the pros and cons of free tuition, variations of which are being widely promoted in America by policymakers and politicians, including candidates for president.
Those complexities have affected Vega, who is in her third year of studying to be a nurse but got bronchitis and missed weeks of school. “I was doing really well,” she said. Now it will take her longer to finish than the free-tuition program — called, in Chile, “gratuidad” — will cover.
“I’m still thinking about how I’m going to pay for that last year” after the benefit runs out, she said in Spanish, in a glass-walled conference room in the university’s busy library. “I’ve had to work while studying to start saving money” for it.
Scandinavian countries, Germany and other places also make college free, but Chile’s educational system has more significant parallels with that of the United States. It has a robust sector of private colleges alongside public universities, tuition higher than anywhere outside of U.S. private and British universities 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’s happened here proves free tuition is politically popular. The socialist candidate for president who made it a centerpiece of her campaign in 2013, Michelle Bachelet, won by a two-to-one margin; the Chilean congress passed it by a vote of 92-2; and the conservative who succeeded Bachelet has continued the policy.
Seventy-five percent of Americans support free tuition at public universities or colleges for students who are academically qualified, a survey by PSB Research for the Campaign for Free College Tuition found.
But it’s expensive. After the campaigns were over and the initial exuberance in Chile had faded, free tuition cost so much, it had to be scaled down and delayed, with complex restrictions added. The same thing has happened to 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.
By the time gratuidad finally began, it covered not all students, but only those whose families were in the bottom half of income, a proportion since expanded to the bottom 60 percent. Even after those revisions, the price tag for Chilean taxpayers is $1.5 billion a year.
Despite this investment, the reform is making only slow progress in expanding access to education for the lowest-income students it was designed in part to help. That’s because nearly 90 percent of those low-income students already got financial aid.
It does show, however, that the prospect of free tuition inspires students to enroll in college who might not have considered it before; 15 percent of Chilean beneficiaries would otherwise not have sought a college education, even if they had access to a scholarship or loan, the University of Chile Student Federation Research Center reports. The government has found that Chileans who get free tuition are also slightly less likely to drop out than their classmates who don’t.
“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,” said Andrés Bernasconi, who studies gratuidad in his role as a professor at the Center for the Study of Educational Policy and Practice at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
But gratuidad doesn’t cover other costs, including rent, food, books and transportation, which remain a barrier to lower-income students.
“To go to university you have to get there,” said Marcos Rojas Pino, who just finished medical school in Santiago. “So transport is important. [And] you have to eat.”
Most American free-tuition programs also don’t cover those expenses, according to a survey by The Education Trust. Because they don’t, two of the most ambitious free-college programs, in Tennessee and New York State, have failed to improve affordability for low-income students, a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy contended.
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.
Similar criticism, that it helps the wrong people, have been leveled at gratuidad, in Chile. Because it also makes slightly wealthier students eligible for free tuition — students who went to better public high schools, and score higher on the PSU — an MIT economist projects that they’ll be more able to afford to enroll at the most selective universities, crowding out the lowest-income applicants from getting the best educations.
Meanwhile, Chilean private colleges, which can participate in gratuidad if they choose, are facing a financial squeeze because, as a condition of subsidizing it, the government limits the tuition they can charge. Some have closed. Many have decided to forgo the plan, since they have relatively high tuition and serve wealthier students whose families’ incomes are too high to qualify anyway.
The bottom line is that free tuition is appealing but, “It’s difficult, very difficult — more difficult than we thought it would be,” said Claudia Sanhueza, who served on some of the committees set up to implement gratuidad and is now director of the Center of Economics and Social Policy at the Universidad Mayor in Santiago.
Chile’s path to free tuition began with decisions by the authoritarian dictatorship that ruled the country from 1973 to 1990. It cut funding for public education — partly because the public universities were considered hotbeds of opposition — and the private sector was encouraged to step in.
Some of the private universities that opened in response took only the best and highest-income students who did well on the entrance exam and could afford to pay the price; others accepted anyone who applied and gave them comparatively poor educations that forced them into debt.
“There are some institutions that are of very dubious quality which receive mostly low-income people,” said Luis Felipe Jiménez Leighton, an economist and former adviser to the education ministry who helped negotiate gratuidad. And “the higher-income people always went to good universities.”
This deepened socioeconomic divisions — Bernasconi notes that twice as many Chileans in the top fifth of income go to college as in the bottom fifth — in a way similar to what has happened in the United States. Unlike in the United States, however, the situation eventually boiled over into strikes and protests.
Demonstrators marched in huge numbers in 2011 to rail against high college costs and large amounts of personal debt from student loans — first introduced in 2006 — that were beginning to come due in amounts that took many borrowers off guard.
Students who had expected that their new degrees would bring them high pay found that, in fact, “the salary was, like, half, and they had this loan,” said Bernasconi. “So for some of them this dream of being in the university or being in higher education becomes a real nightmare, especially because of the debt.”
The protesters also denounced the poor quality of some of the supposedly nonprofit private universities that were effectively for-profit, since their board members and administrators charged inflated leases for the buildings and grounds or paid themselves lavish salaries. Many students never graduated.
Anger about these problems brought whole families out into the streets, Miguel Crispi, a student leader, remembered in his office in the headquarters of the Chilean congress in Valparaiso, where he is now a deputy, or member. A photo hangs on the wall of Salvador Allende, the socialist president deposed by the military coup of 1973.
Chileans, over their breakfasts, “were talking about this,” said Crispi. “They were talking about inequality. They were talking about, ‘How can we afford a higher education? Is it fair to go into debt for studying?’ ”
The movement had not just a practical focus, but a philosophical one: that education is a right.
“It was an expression of a principle and the principle was that education is the right of the people,” Bernasconi said. “And if it’s a right of the people then it should be free of any economic barrier to entry.”
Rosa Devés, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Chile, helped to craft gratuidad. “The path is not perfect,” she said. But when she reads the words of the new law, “I feel quite proud of them. It may be just words but still they are the correct words, and I think that’s a very important starting point.”
When the national budget wasn’t enough to pay for this idealistic vision, however, the restrictions were added — on the income level required to be eligible, the amount of time that students could enjoy the benefit, how much the government would pay to subsidize them, which colleges could participate and other things.
In 2016, when gratuidad began, it reached 139,885 students, or 12 percent of undergraduates, according to Bernasconi; the next year, the last for which the figures are available, the proportion grew to 22 percent.
The same thing could happen in the United States, a report by the think tank The Century Foundation projected. It found that free tuition could increase public higher education enrollments by as much as 25 percent. *This study’s findings have been clarified from an earlier version of this story.
“A lot of these programs you hear about aren’t that big in terms of the percentage of students that they reach because of the design decisions based on cost,” said Century Foundation senior policy adviser Jen Mishory, the report’s co-author.
Other than the lack of support for non-tuition expenses — there are some programs that partially subsidize bus and subway passes and the cost of lunch — it’s the time limit on gratuidad that most rankles students in Chile. 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. Like Vega, the nursing student, if they want to continue, they have to pay.
Students in Chile take 10 to 30 percent longer than the prescribed time, on average, to finish their degrees, depending on the discipline, the Ministry of Education says. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Education reports, only 40 percent of students graduate in four years from the institution at which they started.
“In 2011 the principal problem was that gratuidad didn’t exist,” said 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.”
Colleges and universities in Chile have gripes about the free-tuition program, too. In the first year, only a few private institutions took part. Some couldn’t because they didn’t meet quality requirements; others decided not to, because they serve higher-income students who wouldn’t qualify and didn’t want to lower their fees to the level of the per-student subsidy the government was offering.
For those institutions that sign on to the plan and its price controls, “costs are going to go up and income is going to stay very still,” said Claudio Ruff, rector of the private Universidad Bernardo O’Higgins and president of the association of private universities, the Corporación de Universidades Privadas.
Already, Ruff said, 15 private universities and colleges in Chile have closed or are in the process of closing because it’s hard to compete with free and because of the increased regulation that has accompanied gratuidad, even for colleges like his — named for the part-Irish leader of Chilean independence from Spain — that so far don’t accept it.
“For the schools that don’t have gratuidad there has been an impact, because logically the student is going to look for universities or technical programs that participate,” he said.
Many of the rest 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, said Leighton, the economist. 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.”
Some private institutions in Chile may have gotten fat, conceded Ruff. “But not any more. Private universities spend more money [than public ones], but they spend it better.” Besides, he said in his office overlooking a grassy quad, with a portrait of O’Higgins on the wall, private universities can “tighten their belts faster.”
Already troubled U.S. private colleges are also being affected by free-tuition programs, and, as in Chile, having to discount their prices to remain competitive. This is especially true in New York State, which offers free tuition for students at public universities and colleges whose families earn $110,000 a year or less.
Thirty New York private colleges dependent on New York State residents for at least 65 percent of their undergraduate enrollment saw a 7 percent decline in new freshmen and 60 percent reported fewer transfer students in the first year of that program, which began in 2017, according to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, or CICU. They collectively laid off 1,535 employees.
That is not a welcome byproduct of free tuition, said CICU president Mary Beth Labate. It’s a dangerous consequence.
“We have an excellent higher education ecosystem in New York State and that really is a function of all of the players in that space,” Labate said. “You don’t want to cause injury to one of the sectors because then it will cause injury to all of the sectors.”
As it stands, gratuidad is set to be expanded when tax revenues allow. But the argument in Chile now is over whether it should be.
Some, like Deves, say yes.
“Why am I going to pay for a rich person to go to university?” she asked rhetorically, as the cacophony of Santiago’s rush-hour traffic reached up from 21 floors below. “It is because 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 the country simply may not be able to afford that, said Leighton.
“We’re not in a state of abundance where we can finance everything,” he said. “You have to prioritize some things and in the process to leave somebody in and somebody out.”
Sixty-eight percent of Chileans say they are against extending free tuition to everyone, preferring that only people in the bottom 70 percent of income be covered, one poll found.
Conservatives, who now hold a majority in government, would prefer to put the money into primary and secondary education, where socioeconomic divisions begin. Unequal preparation, as much as their financial situation, is why so few lower-income students from mediocre high schools score high enough on the PSU admissions test to go to top universities, said Jaime Bellolio, a conservative deputy in congress who serves on the education committee.
“Free tuition is not the only solution for getting more vulnerable students into university or into higher education,” Bellolio said in the quiet of the wood-paneled room in the congressional building in Valparaiso where the education committee meets. “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 said: “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. And we have a lot of inequality in access in those first years, much more than in the last years.”
But Deves said gratuidad is an important start. “It’s imperfect, but it’s so much better than what we had,” she said. “The rich kept going to the good education. And the poor not only went to poor education but they would have to pay for the poor education at a very high cost.”
Whatever happens, free tuition is here to stay in Chile, Sanhueza said.
“There’s no going back, I think,” she said.
This story about tuition free colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with National Public Radio. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.