How other countries do it

Maybe you’ve seen those charts illustrating how much more Americans spend on healthcare than people in other industrialized countries. College prices show a similar pattern.

A number of Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, along with France and Germany, allow students to attend college for free, or nearly free, up to the bachelor’s level. Some of those, like Germany, also give students grants to cover living expenses.

Not surprisingly, students in those countries carry less debt than their counterparts in the U.S. The overwhelming majority of Germans, for example, graduate debt-free.

Of course, Europeans generally pay higher taxes than Americans once they graduate into the workforce. And Europe hasn’t entirely stamped out student debt. The average Swedish student loan borrower owes almost $20,000—mostly due to living expenses accrued while attending one of the country’s tuition-free universities.

In England, recent tuition hikes have left students paying the highest fees of any OECD country. But unlike in the United States, graduates don’t have to start repaying their loans until they’re earning more than about $33,000 a year. Payments are pegged to income, and any balance remaining after 30 years is automatically forgiven.