Nobody Understands Our Student Debt

Today, we visited the Artevelde University College in Ghent, Belgium. I should go ahead and admit that I'm in love with the Flemish system of higher education in order to contextualize what follows, which might be considered gushing rather than analysis.

When we arrived on the top floor of the building in which this campus of the Artevelde is housed, we were by with one of the best views in Ghent. Next door was an historic monastery complete with vineyards. The conference room in which we met had floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and twenty-foot ceilings, and the room and view weren't even the best parts.

Artevelde is what the Flemish call a "university college." It offers primarily what are known here as Professional Bachelor degrees. Their programs of study are designed largely for professionals who will complete a three-year course of study then enter a professional career. Programs available at Artevelde include teaching, midwifery, marketing, logistics management, nursing, and social work, among others.

In the Flemish system, there are two types of bachelor degrees: academic and professional. The academic degrees are designed for those disciplines like history and sociology which generally lead to a master's degree and PhD, while professional degrees are meant to prepare students to enter professions upon graduation. Artevelde offers professional degrees, so one can't major in, say, history, at this institution. Their mission reminds me in many ways of public regional comprehensive universities in the US, with the exception of academic-oriented majors. In short, "university colleges" focus mostly on professional degrees while "universities" more closely resemble the R1 research institutions we have in the US.

Incidentally, before I go on, I should probably explain that "Flemish" business. In order to understand higher education in Belgium, one must understand a bit about the political and cultural structure of the country. Belgium is a country that did not develop organically. It was thrown together in the 1830s by Queen Victoria of England and a few others hoping to prevent another Napoleon type from taking over the whole of continental Europe. The goal was to establish a buffer between Germany and France. That is a gross oversimplification of a complicated history, but it will do for our purposes. In short: there's not really any such thing as Belgian culture or even a strong Belgian government. They have a national military and government, but it is designed as a federal system with a rather weak central governing structure. The country is divided into three distinct regions with three different cultures and official languages. We are currently in Flanders, which is roughly the north half of the country. Here, they speak Flemish (which is basically Dutch), and have a uniquely Flemish educational system. The southern half of the country is Wallonia, where they speak French and have a uniquely Wallonian culture and education system. Finally, about 100,000 people in a small region on the border between Belgium and Germany speak German and have their own governing structure. In Belgium, most governmental functions, particularly as they relate to education, are carried out at the regional level. Therefore, what I write here about Flemish education applies only to Flanders, not necessarily to the rest of Belgium. Confused yet?

As is the case in much of Europe, higher education is heavily subsidized by the government. In Flanders, the most a student will pay out of pocket for a year of college is around 900 € (which is approximately $1,050). Students of low socioeconomic status can and do pay less. The result is that most all Flemish students graduate with no student debt.

Students who complete a secondary education in Flanders have guaranteed access to the postsecondary institution of their choice. They get wide latitude in picking both the institution they attend and their course of study, though institutions work hard to be sure that students enroll at institutions and pick courses of study for which they are well-suited.

Today at Artevelde, we talked with administrators who are on the cutting edge of advising students about the courses of study best suited for them. They are working with the region's top universities to develop a system of tests and assessments called "Columbus" which guide secondary students toward appropriate paths of higher education.

One of the administrators shared a model of student advising that I plan to use with my own advisees. In determining what course of study might be best for students, they ask questions like: "Do I WANT to make a choice of study?," "WHO amI?," "What does higher education look like?," "Which programs are available?," "CAN I choose?," and "Am I COMMITTED to my choice?." The goal of this line of questioning is to help students arrive at college at age 18 with tangible plans for their future.

From my vantage point, one of the primary differences between the US system and the Flanders system is that students who are high-school-aged choose their institution in Flanders based upon desired course of study and career path. Institutions here generally offer fewer courses of study (that is, in US-speak, majors). One can't pick a particular institution and go there to study virtually anything they want. Few institutions offer both academic and professional programs, and few offer dozens and dozens of majors in the way larger US institutions do.

I am very much a fan of general studies curricula in higher education. In the US, generally speaking, students at most institutional types spend the first two years of college studying general education topics. In many place in Europe, students get a much more well-rounded experience in secondary school (the equivalents of our high schools), so they do not need an extra two years of general studies in order to become more well-rounded or pick a major course of study. In Flanders, it seems, secondary and postsecondary education are substantially more interconnected. We could, I think, learn a lot from this system.

As we engaged in dialogue with administrators from the Artevelde school, it became apparent that they, like many others, can't fathom the way we burden students with higher education debt in the US. As we shared with our hosts just how expensive tuition is at our various institutions, they explained that they couldn't imagine a system where education was an individual good rather than a collective and societal good. As much as we like to think that Americans view higher education as being for the greater good of society, the reality is that our funding models make it clear that we believe higher education to be both an individual benefit and an individual responsibility. This has not always been the case in the US, but politics has made this our reality.

Imagine a world where students graduate higher education institutions with degrees that prepare them to be global citizens and without a lifetime of debt. Such a system exists, but it requires a national commitment to education. It requires a large-scale movement to view education as a holistic process rather than as a discrete system where students obtain a primary and secondary education then perhaps go on (if they an afford it) to earn a postsecondary credential. I'm not sure why we have a giant speed bump separating secondary and postsecondary education in the US, but I am convinced that it stems from the notion that education is best administered at the local, rather than the national, level. Perhaps its time we reexamine our system and get back to understanding that what is best for our country is a highly educated populace. That, however, will take some hard choices, and Americans really hate hard choices.

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