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Sat Dec 28, 2013, 02:21 PM

Free higher education for all - What a concept! In Chile, not in this country


Michelle Bachelet, who won Chile’s presidency in a landslide on Sunday, has vowed to overhaul her country’s economic model to deal with endemic inequality. And she plans to start by providing free higher education for all.

It’s a radical departure from the current system, in which the government accounts for just 15 percent of the sector’s total funding. That share is among the lowest in the world and is less than half that of the United States, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD.

The policy would also challenge the country’s image as the free-market poster child of Latin America. Chile was the first country in the region to adopt liberalizing economic reforms, in the 1970s. It now boasts the highest GDP per capita and the highest levels of human development in Latin America, says the World Bank. It also has the third highest university-enrollment rate, after Cuba and Argentina.

“The biggest challenge Chilean society faces is education,” she said in her 200-page campaign manifesto. “Inequality and segregation still persist in alarming levels.”

If carried out, the reforms would bring Chile closer in line with the rest of Latin America, where most countries offer some form of free, public higher education. Currently, most of Chile’s one million college students rely on government-subsidized loans to pay tuition, often incurring huge debt. They include the more than 100,000 people who defaulted on their loans in 2012 and who owed an average of $5,400—more than a fourth of the average annual income, according to government figures.

Sound familiar? Chile’s attempts at overhauling its higher-education financing system could provide key lessons for the current debate in the United States over college affordability. But it won’t be easy.

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