By Abram Diaz-Strandberg

I participated in the 2017 Global Perspectives Program as a member of the Virginia Tech cohort. My life was truly changed by the experience. I learned an immense amount about higher education both on the trip and during the preparation and follow-up activities. Furthermore, I learned about the Swiss culture and also the educator and person I strive to become. My individual research topic was focused on looking at diversity in Switzerland, especially in an economic context. I found that there were some economic barriers to education in the country. The most important lessons I learned were not related to economics but the value that is placed on all forms of education in the country.

Switzerland as a whole is very well educated. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports the following,

“The large majority of the Swiss population has attained at least upper secondary education: 86% of 25-64 year-olds and 89% of 25-34 year-olds (the OECD average is 75% and 82% respectively).” (OECD)

Most students in the country not only have access to higher education, they are highly likely earn a degree. Moreover, the Swiss place a high value on vocational education. This creates an environment in which people can make a living wage as a skilled worker and are given higher social status than that given to so-called “blue collar” workers in the U.S.

As a whole the population is also rather wealthy when compared on a regional and global scale. The average income in Zurich, for example, is over $41 (U.S. dollars) per hour. (swissinfo.ch) The same article listed Zurich and Geneva as the two most expensive cities to live in worldwide. (swissinfo.ch) The median wage reported on the Swiss Federal Statistics website was 6,427 CHF for 2014. (Swiss Federal Statistics Office) In contrast, the average wage across the EU is estimated to be EUR 1,520 (1,335 CHF). (Reines Fischer) These statistics show how significant the income difference is between residents of Switzerland and their European neighbors. The overall higher median income in Switzerland could be contributing to the increased access to higher education.

There is also significant variation in wages across Switzerland. Depending on the canton that a student grows up in, their average family income can vary greatly. A recent report by Credit Suisse gives a good picture of the economic situation across Switzerland as a whole. The following figure shows the regional disposable income (RDI) across Switzerland.

The RDI is normalized so that zero is the average RDI across the country. Negative RDI’s indicate that the disposable income in that region is lower than average and positive RDI’s indicate that the disposable income in that region is higher than the average. Looking at the map, it can be seen that Zurich, Basel and Geneva all have RDI values that are significantly below the countries average. Although people in these major cities make more money, the cost of living outweighs their increased earnings.

According to myScience.ch,

“The monthly median gross salary of jobholders (all education levels, all ages) amounted 2010 in Switzerland to 5,979 CHF. Only 10.7% of the jobs are paid less than 4,000 CHF.” (myScience)

The variation in wages across Switzerland is also represented in the following table from the Swiss Federal Statistics Office. It shows the median wage in each of the major regions of the country. Comparing the wages between Tocino and Zurich, it can be seen that the income of the people from different regions can vary greatly.

 

 

The cost of Higher Education is significantly lower in Switzerland when compared to universities in the United States. Furthermore, there are scholarships to cover tuition costs for both Swiss and foreign students. After many conversations over the course of the Global Perspectives Program I believe that the real barrier to higher education in Switzerland is the cost of living . ETH Zurich estimates the cost of study and living to be between 16,000 and 26,000 CHF per year. With a tuition cost of 1,298 CHF per year, including fees, the total cost of living is estimated to be between 14,700 and 24,700 CHF. (ETH Zurich) As a comparison, collegedata.com reports the cost of room and board in the U.S. as the following:

“The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2016–2017 ranged from $10,440 at four-year public schools to $11,890 at private schools.” (collegeData)

These statistics show that simply comparing the cost of tuition does not give the complete picture of the total financial burden of university studies. Students at ETH are paying up to $14,000 more for room and board every year.

According to another report on swissinfo.ch, the average cost for attendance at a Swiss university was nearly $28,000 (USD) per year. They also reported that only around 15% of Swiss students have a bursary or a loan. The report then compared this to the roughly 71% of U.S. Bachelors degree recipients having students loans and an average debt of $35,000 (SwissInfo.ch). These numbers show that even thought the cost of living in substantially higher for Swiss students, they seem to incur less debt than students in the United States.

The official poverty rate in 2012 was roughly 15% in the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau) and roughly 8% in Switzerland (TheLocal.ch). As a whole, Switzerland has a much lower level of economic hardship than that seen in the United States, and both countries are far better economically than the majority of the world. Some might read this statistic as a sign of a healthy, successful country. I would argue, however, that as long as the regional and global economies do not reflect similar levels of wealth that the U.S. and Switzerland are prosperous only by maintaining a high level of exclusivity. It was certainly made clear in several presentations that the expectation of the Swiss institutions was that foreign students finish their education and then return home. The beliefs are held by many in the U.S. as well. There are also other anti-foreign sentiments in Switzerland. Subsidies paid at the Cantonal level are largely responsible for the funding of the Swiss universities, and some residents feel that foreign students should have to pay a higher tuition than Swiss nationals.

In my opinion, society gains much more from opening its doors to international students than the costs to host those students. As a civilization we need to adopt the philosophy that our individual lives are far better when we improve the lives of our neighbors and invite all forms of diversity into our environment.

One very interesting statistic that I found in my research was that in 2013, the United States actually spent more per student than any other country in the world, yet students in the U.S. routinely score low on competency exams when compared with similar countries. The article on CBSnews.com reports the following:

The United States spent more than $11,000 per elementary student in 2010 and more than $12,000 per high school student. When researchers factored in the cost for programs after high school education such as college or vocational training, the United States spent $15,171 on each young person in the system — more than any other nation covered in the report.

That sum inched past some developed countries and far surpassed others. Switzerland’s total spending per student was $14,922 while Mexico averaged $2,993 in 2010. The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person.

[…]

For post-high school programs, the United States is far outspent in public dollars. U.S. taxpayers picked up 36 cents of every dollar spent on college and vocational training programs. Families and private sources picked up the balance.

In other OECD nations, it was roughly reversed: The public picked up 68 cents of every dollar in advanced training and private sources picked up the other 32 cents.

(The Associated Press)

 

It seems that there are some fundamental flaws in the U.S. education system. We spend so much money on education but still fail to achieve high levels of academic competency. Furthermore, students rely heavily on loans to fund post-secondary education. We need to repair our system so that we do not keep outspending the rest of the world on education without actually improving the student outcomes.

As a student who comes from a low-income family, the topic of access to education is very close to my heart. I have often been involved in programs aimed at helping underprivileged students achieve academic success. I think that these programs were vital to my accomplishments. An issue that I have experienced with these programs, however, is that often times solutions formed with the best intentions do not actually provide the help that students need. Another difficulty lies in the logistics of how these programs select students and how they deliver the resources that students need.

The insights that I gained while exploring the university systems in Switzerland were both immense and profound. Being a prosperous country, Switzerland has a unique opportunity to lead the way towards a more equal and successful future for the world. I definitely perceived a significant level of exclusivity in the Swiss culture, which is something that does concern me. I am also very aware that many of my fellow U.S. residents hold similar, if not more extreme, views of exclusion. Communities, countries and societies as a whole need to honestly contemplate what their contributions are to the world and how they can improve. This honest reflection and willingness to change is the only way to evolve as a society and eradicate problems like extreme poverty, starvation and climate change.