What The U.S. Can Learn From Free College In 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 exam was good enough to get her into the top-rated University of Chile. Vega is now in her third year, studying to be a nurse. And thanks to an important change in government policy, life got easier after that: She didn't have to pay.

That's because Chile has made college tuition-free — through a policy called gratuidad— 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 the poorest students.

It's a version of "free college" along the lines of what many in the United States are talking about — including several Democratic candidates for president.

Chile's educational system has significant parallels with that of the U.S.: a robust sector of private colleges alongside public universities; high college tuition; 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 has happened in Chile proves that free tuition is politically popular.

In 2013, Michelle Bachelet, then the socialist candidate for president, made it a centerpiece of her campaign and won by a 2-to-1 margin; several years later, the Chilean Congress passed it by a vote of 92-2. Sebastián Piñera, the conservative who succeeded Bachelet, has continued the policy.

And it's a popular idea in the U.S., too: Seventy-one percent of Americans support free tuition at public universities or colleges for students who are academically qualified, according to a survey by PSB Research for the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

How it came to be

A driving force behind the move to gratuidad in Chile was deep socioeconomic divisions in society, a remnant of Chile's authoritarian government that ruled the country from 1973 to 1990.

In 2011, the frustrations and anger boiled over into strikes and protests. Demonstrators marched against high college costs and large amounts of personal debt from student loans. 

The frustrations then were similar to those that have sparked political protests in recent weeks.

"In Chile, you can't move things" without people in the streets explains Miguel Crispi, who is now a deputy, or member, of the Chilean Congress.

Back in 2011, the debate was all about education.

Chileans, over their breakfasts, "were talking about inequality," says Crispi, who was a student leader during those protests. He recalls whole families "talking about, 'How can we afford a higher education? Is it fair to go into debt for studying?' "

As in the U.S., the movement rose above financial concerns about paying for college to a broader, philosophical principle: Higher education is a right.

"The most important way of being free is having the tools for doing what you want to do in life. That's education," says Crispi. "It's about being free or having the chance to be free."

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