The High Price of a Free College Education in Sweden

The Atlantic - Matt Phillips May 31 2013, 11:04 AM ET

Swedish colleges and universities are free. Yep. Totally free.

But students there still end up with a lot of debt. The average at the beginning of 2013 was roughly 124,000 Swedish krona ($19,000). Sure, the average US student was carrying about 30% more, at $24,800.

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But remember: Free. College in Sweden is free. That's not even all that common in Europe anymore. While the costs of education are far lower than in the US, over the past two decades sometimes-hefty fees have become a fact of life for many European students. Britain got them in 1998 . Some German states instituted them after a federal ban on student fees was overturned in the courts. In fact, since 1995 more than half of the 25 OECD countries with available data on higher education have overhauled their college tuition policies at public institutions , with many adding or raising fees.

And yet, students in Germany and the UK have far lower debts than in Sweden. And 85% of Swedish students graduate with debt, versus only 50% in the US. Worst of all, new Swedish graduates have the highest debt-to-income ratios of any group of students in the developed world (according to estimates of what they're expected to earn once they get out of school)--somewhere in the neighborhood of 80%. The US, where we're constantly being told that student debt is hitting crisis proportions, the average is more like 60%. Why?

Freedom isn't free

College in Sweden is free. But rent isn't. And food isn't. Neither is the beer that fuels the relatively infrequent, yet legendary, binges in which some Swedes partake. Costs of living in Sweden are high, especially in cities such as Stockholm, which regularly ranks among the world's most expensive places to live. But again, this stuff isn't free for students in other European countries either. So why do Swedish students end up with more debt? It's pretty simple, actually. In Sweden, young people are expected to pay for things themselves instead of sponging off their parents.

Meet Ellie

This is Ellie . She's 22 years old and lives in Stockholm, where she studies engineering and media technology at the Royal Institute of Technology. There's no tuition to pay for the five-year course of study. And because she is from Stockholm, Ellie was able to live at home with her parents for the first couple years of her university career.