Every so often an event happens in Switzerland that stuns an American expatriate. The Canton of Neuchâtel, a French-speaking area in western Switzerland known for its 300-year history of luxury watchmaking and ultra-high precision instruments, is the scene of an animated controversy. The local government has proposed raising semester fees for students at the local university from 425 Swiss francs to 720 Swiss francs (Roughly CHF1=U.S.$1). As reported in the press, opposition has come from the political left and right. A student association complained that: “This important supplementary charge will unnecessarily increase the burden on students in an unfavorable economic context.”
Some years ago, a friend, a director of the Swiss think tank Avenir Swiss, proposed in the press that the University of Geneva raise it fees from CHF500 to CHF5,000 per semester. When he tried to explain his reasoning publicly to a general audience, student protesters entered the hall denouncing him and the proposal. The presentation was never made; the protesters managed to stop the event. The speaker was silenced; the proposal was ignored; the fees never changed. Fees at the University of Geneva, consistently ranked among the top 100 universities in the world, remain CHF500 per semester.
It is always risky to make comparisons between a small country of eight million inhabitants and the United States, but it is important to point out that Swiss university education remains within everyone’s economic possibilities, the dream of all true democracies. (Public elementary, junior high, and high school are free in Switzerland.)
Some recent U.S. figures to consider in relation to Swiss costs although not always in the same category: The cost of private nursery school in New York City has been reported to be at around $40,000. Private schools, non-boarding, are in the $50,000 range, and private universities at $75,000. To calculate: A child starting nursery school at age two would cost 3x$40,000=$120,00; 13x$50,000=$650,000; 4x$75,000=$300,000; a total over one million dollars including a bachelor’s degree for a child’s education.
You will correctly say I am comparing apples and oranges in several ways. First, the size of Switzerland and the United States are not the same. Granted. Second, you will say I am comparing public education in Switzerland with private institutions in the United States. Granted as well. The private school Le Rosey, “the School of Kings,” also in the French-speaking part of western Switzerland, costs over CHF100,000 per year, boarding included, with the winter term in Gstaad.
So let’s compare costs of public institutions in Switzerland – CHF500 per semester – with public universities in the United States. City University of New York (CUNY), the place where many immigrants or first-generation Americans receive their education (my father included), tuition now costs $6,920 per year for NY State residents and $18,600 per year for out-of-state residents. At Oswego State University, part of the NY State University system (SUNY), tuition is $3,535 per semester for in-state students, and required fees are about another $750. Out-of-state students pay $8,500 per semester. The University of California at Los Angeles, UCLA, charges $37,448 tuition, fees, and housing per year for in-state residents; non-residents pay $68,474.
Overall, since 1980, the total cost of both four-year public and four-year private colleges in the United States has nearly tripled. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the typical undergraduate student with loans now graduates with nearly $25,000 in debt. President Biden’s plan to cancel $10,000 of student debts for low-to-middle income families comes at a time when cumulative federal student loan debt is calculated at $1.6 trillion and rising for more than 45 million borrowers. (The legality of Biden’s proposal will be decided by the Supreme Court.)
To return to Switzerland: The Neuchâtel protesters should realize how fortunate they are to have such low tuition fees compared to costs in the U.S. The Ecole Polytechnic de Lausanne, Switzerland’s equivalent of M.I.T, ranked 14 in QS Global World Rankings in 2021, charges CHF730 per semester in tuition. Granted, once more, that living costs may be higher in Switzerland than the United States. But still, the costs of education here are not exorbitant and have not tripled in over 40 years.
The exorbitant costs of public and private education in the United States are most worrying. The idea of public education dates to the 19th century and Horace Mann, the “Father of the Common School Movement,” who described education as “the balance wheel of the social machinery.” [i] If the system becomes outlandishly expensive, only those who can afford the best education will get ahead. Granted, once more, that many universities offer scholarships or need-based assistance to those who cannot afford to pay full tuition. But that doesn’t mean that education fees are reasonable for the general population. Rising tuition costs in the United States contribute dramatically to economic and social inequality.
If the students in Neuchâtel and Geneva protest small increases in relatively low university costs, imagine what millions of United States students and families could do when their immoderate costs continue to rise higher and higher. While students activists in the U.S. protest many issues, the costs of their education is not primary. Students in the United States unite, you have only to lose your future financial indebtedness.
[i] There is some irony that the Horace Mann School in New York City is a private, elite institution used by George Santos in his fake curriculum vitae. The tuition for grades K-12 was $53,200 in 2019. Full disclosure: I am a graduate of the Horace Mann School. I attended on a scholarship when tuition fees were considerably lower than $53,000.