The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s plans to expand free education may be new for America. But in other countries, they’re the norm.

Toddlers wave Danish flags as they gather to greet Queen Margrethe II of Denmark outside Fredensborg Castle on April 16. (Martin Sylvest/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

When President Biden laid out the ambitious education targets in his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan during his speech to Congress on Wednesday, he invoked concerns of foreign competition to justify them.

Twelve years of free education, long the standard in the United States, was no longer enough “to compete with the rest of the world in the 21st century,” Biden said.

The move prompted backlash from some Republicans, who compared the policies to those in the Soviet Union or criticized them as promises of “free stuff.”

But many experts agree that the United States has become an outlier among wealthy nations, as well as geopolitical rivals, when it comes to education.

While Biden’s core proposals — universal access to preschool education, also known as pre-K, and expanded access to free college-age education — may seem new in the United States, they became common globally long ago.

“The U.S. led the world in the creation of free public schooling through the first half of the 20th century,” said Ajay Chaudry, a research scholar at New York University and co-author of the book “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality.”

Since then, the United States has stagnated on this front, allowing other countries to leap ahead. Biden’s proposals could help catch up, to a point.

“Systems across the globe are working to expand access even further,” said Jackie Kraemer of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “So the longer the U.S. waits, the further behind we will be.”

Universal pre-K

Free education for children before they enter kindergarten is already the norm in some parts of the United States, including Washington. To many Americans, however, it remains a foreign concept.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted an article from 1974 on Thursday that described subsidized preschool day care in the Soviet Union. “You know who else liked universal day care[?]” Blackburn asked rhetorically.

The concept is not limited to U.S. rivals, however, and dates back further. In France, the concept of “écoles maternelles” developed in the 1830s. In most Western European nations, access to preschool education was expanded significantly after World War II, becoming standard by the 1990s, Chaudry said.

Asian nations, including China, South Korea and Japan, put in similar policies later as their economies developed.

Now, virtually all children ages 3 and 4 in such countries as Britain, France, Israel, Belgium and Iceland are enrolled in some kind of formal education, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

But the United States lags behind: Less than 60 percent of U.S. children were enrolled in early education in 2018 — the third-lowest of 42 countries, significantly below the average.

The divide may be bigger — in many European nations, including France and Denmark, parents are entitled to free or heavily subsidized care for children starting when they are as young as 6 months.

In a 2017 study, Hans Bos and Gabriele Fain of the American Institutes for Research looked at preschool education in 17 countries and found that the United States could widen enrollment in preschool services if it considered several factors, including increasing funding and making the services available universally.

But ideological issues surrounding the role of the government in schooling have historically blocked U.S. preschool reforms. Another issue is cost.

The United States spent roughly 0.4 percent of its gross domestic product on child care for 3- and 4-year-olds in 2017, according to the OECD. Iceland, the highest-ranking country, spent 1 percent.

Free community college

Under Biden’s proposal, the U.S. government would spend about $302 billion over 10 years to expand access to higher education.

The plan would cover two years of tuition for students attending community colleges, as well as for low- and middle-income students at historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions serving minority communities.

The Biden administration would also increase the maximum amount offered by Pell Grants, which help to cover other costs related to schooling and living expenses.

But Biden’s pledge may not bring the United States into line with other nations.

Bernie Sanders and other Democrats are embracing free college. Europe shows it can be done, but there’s a cost.

Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden offer higher education for no or low tuition and other fees and provide support to defray students’ living costs.

In other European countries, including Germany and Spain, higher education is similarly either free or very inexpensive for European Union citizens. International students from non-E.U. countries typically pay low tuition, as well.

U.S. universities, on the other end of the spectrum, rank as the most expensive worldwide.

Broadly speaking, the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia have a similar approach of offsetting higher tuition fees with a well-developed financial aid system for student support, said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

The U.S. community college system, however, is an “unusually American idea,” so comparing Biden’s proposal with the programs of other countries is “a little bit apples and oranges,” Brock said.

U.S. community colleges, which provide an associate’s degree, are comparatively less restrictive about who can attend and what they can study. Canada is the only other country with a similar model, Brock said.

Biden’s proposal would make the U.S. community college model closer to the Nordic approach. But U.S. four-year colleges and universities, which offer bachelor’s and other higher-education degrees, would be less affected.

“A caution in the strategy to provide free higher education is that it does not necessarily address the perhaps more critical issue of the cost of higher education,” said Kraemer, adding that the cost was “higher in the U.S. than virtually anywhere else in the world and rising at a faster rate.”

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