Free College In Chile: What The U.S. Can Learn In 2016, Chile passed gratuidad, or "free college." As the idea gains popularity ahead of the 2020 presidential election in the U.S., Chile offers some lessons from what has happened there.
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What The U.S. Can Learn From Free College In Chile

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

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

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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.


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