What free college can't fix

Sometimes reducing cost isn't enough

Although higher education is essentially free in Norway, only one in seven children from the least-educated families attend college, Jon Marcus writes in The Atlantic.

Norway is a "laboratory" to study the role of cost in higher education access, says Curt Rice, an American-born soon-to-be president of Norway's Oslo and Akershus University College—one of the nation's largest. All students receive the same tuition assistance and stipend for living expenses: cost is not a factor.

Yet only 14% of Norwegian children whose parents did not attend college enroll themselves. In the United States—where cost is a major issue for higher education—13% of such children get degrees, according to an analysis by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.

Related: Free tuition may not be enough to improve access to degrees

Experts say the similarly low rates of attendance in the two countries are a reminder that there is more to access than money—environment also plays a major role.

More than money

John Gomperts, president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance, says making higher education more affordable is only one strategy to increase to access. "If you come from a background where everyone goes to college, there's no question that you'll go to college. But if you grew up in a challenging community where nobody went to or succeeded in college, there's no one at home who is going to know how to navigate the system," he explains.

Margaret Cahalan, who supervises research at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, agrees cost is only one factor in promoting access among would-be first-generation college students. For instance, the College Board says one of the biggest predictors of SAT scores is whether the test taker's parent went to college.

High school wealth best predicts college enrollment—and persistence

Norway's commitment to equality may actually be part of the college access problem, notes Elisabeth Hovdhaugen of the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education. "Helping students from low socioeconomic status does not happen at all," she says, explaining that providing extra help to those students is perceived as an unfair advantage. "It's the idea of the equitable society, and that students are considered adults, independent of their parents."

The value of a college degree is also more suspect in Norway, driving down attendance among certain groups of students. A strong social-welfare program and blue collar jobs that pay high wages make college a tougher sell. Marcus notes that some worry a similar trend is emerging in the United States, with a recent Pew Research Center survey finding 57% of Americans think higher education isn't a good value.

According to the College Board, one-third of children older than five in the United States have parents that didn't go to college. Enrolling more students from such backgrounds will be critical to meeting future demand for college-educated workers, Marcus writes. And Norway's example is a reminder that when it comes to increasing access, money is not always the answer (Marcus, The Atlantic, 6/10).

What are the cultural barriers to increasing college access? Send your thoughts to @eab_daily and let us know.

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