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June 07, 2013 12:10 PM Sweden Has Free College, and Students Are Still in Debt. How’d that Happen?

By Daniel Luzer

The average American who takes out loans to attend college faces some $27,000 o debt upon graduation. Student loan debt has quadrupled in the last decade. A lot of this increase surely has to do with the high and escalating cost of college—in America we expect students and parents themselves make significant contributions to pay for college.

In Sweden, however, college is free. Totally free, up to the PhD level. Institutions charge students no fees at all. And yet, according to an article at Quartz, some 85 percent of Swedish students still graduate with debt. They face an average $19,000 upon graduation. That’s lower than in America, but not much lower:

SwedenUSDEBT

Why? Well, according to the article:

College in Sweden is free. But rent isn’t. And food isn’t. Neither is the beer that fuels the relatively infrequent, yet legendary, binges in which some Swedes partake. Costs of living in Sweden are high, especially in cities such as Stockholm, which regularly ranks among the world’s most expensive places to live. But again, this stuff isn’t free for students in other European countries either. So why do Swedish students end up with more debt? It’s pretty simple, actually. In Sweden, young people are expected to pay for things themselves instead of sponging off their parents.

In many other countries, even those that charge fees for colleges, it’s normal for students to live with their parents while they study. In Sweden, for a variety of historical reasons, this just isn’t the case. It’s also normal for parents not to contribute to their children’s living expenses at all. They’re adults, after all; their apartments are their own responsibility.

The article points out, however, that the burden of education-related loans in Sweden isn’t nearly as difficult as in the U.S. Because loans rates are set by the government, maintained through subsidies, and have a repayment period of 25 years, it’s possible to live comfortably in Sweden with relatively high debt loads. Swedish university-related debt eats up only 3.8 percent of average monthly income.

In America, in contrast, even under President Barack Obama’s new income based repayment plan for education debt, student loan payments are as much as 10 percent of former students’ discretionary income. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer