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By Alee Gonzalez

In contemporary society, each passing year brings with it a greater demand for higher education. The influx of newly enrolled students consequently raises both the need of a degree to find a job and the amount of students in debt in both the United States and Sweden. The average student debt in the United States is often higher than in Sweden, and can be explained by the high cost of tuition fees that students face nationally. Students in Sweden on the other hand do not pay tuition, although they continue to face student debt. According to The Atlantic, students graduating in the United States in 2013 carried an average debt of around $25 000; in Sweden, the debt was $19 000. The difference in reasons as to why students face debt within the two countries is indicative of the values that represent each nation. While the United States is applauded for being a land of opportunity, the scramble to climb the social ladder has brought with it a culture of competition. Conversely, the culture in Sweden is seen to be egalitarian, and as a result, the financial well-being of students is solely placed on their shoulders once they reach adulthood, not those of their parents.

The high tuition fees in the United States are reflective of a competitive culture. Universities, in a sense, are marketed as goods, and potential students  are treated as consumers. Education in the United States is therefore treated as a commodity — another market space within a capitalist society in which the mechanism of supply and demand operates. The burgeoning need to attend a university, and the consequent increase in demand for higher education, is a factor contributing to the high tuition fees which keep American students drowning in debt.

Federal grants, as a means of financial aid from the United States government, are available to relieve students from a fraction of these debts, although this option specifically caters to low-income families. Furthermore, when applying for aid, parental income is taken into consideration, hurting those students who are deemed not in need of financial support, but who are simultaneously not offered substantial help from their families. The lack of support from the government suggests an unconcerned attitude towards post-secondary education, while the pressure to pursue a degree continues to grow.

In contrast, education in Sweden is covered by taxes, a model that exemplifies equality. This contributes to the country’s reputation as being an egalitarian nation. Everyone has the opportunity to reap the educational benefits of a system they pay into. Students may be in debt upon graduation, but unlike the United States, this is not due to extortionate tuition fees. Part of Swedish custom is that young people are meant to be independent and cover their own costs once they reach adulthood. For this reason, it is very common for students to take out loans — to cover living expenses, rather than to cover tuition fees. This method also evens out the playing field for students. Rather than there being a class disparity, every student should be equal in terms of finance, because each takes individual responsibility, regardless of their family background.

Students in Sweden are also offered a grant alongside a loan upon enrollment. The Swedish Board for Study Support (CSN) approves and distributes Swedish financial aid for studies, helping to cover a student’s living costs and creating the financial conditions for many people to participate in educational activities. CSN also aims to attenuate the differences between societal groups and make society fairer — aid is therefore an integral part of the Swedish welfare system.

Students in both of the aforementioned countries are pressured to risk accumulating large amounts of debt in exchange for the possibility of a higher standard of living. Whether in a principally capitalist country like the United States, or in a relatively equitable one like Sweden, the prospect of a better future remains a significant driving force behind national student debt. The intimidating debt that students are confronted with post-graduation often surpasses the salary they initially expect to earn, which challenges the value placed on having an educated society. However, whilst Swedish students do graduate university with debt, the message that is instilled within them is that education is something that is worth investing in — an opportunity that should be open for all and one that is supported by the state. The Swedish model of alleviating financial burdens on students by offering tuition-free education seems to understand the benefits the nation gains as a whole when there is easier access to education.

By Alee Gonzalez

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