OSLO, Norway—There’s a saying in famously egalitarian Norway that Curt Rice, the American-born incoming president of the country’s third-biggest university, likes to rattle off: “We’re all sitting in the same boat.”

What it means, Rice said, is that the country is against singling anyone out. “That just does not sit well in the Norwegian soul.”

So all Norwegians have the same tuition-free access to college, no matter their background. Every student gets the same allowance from the government for living expenses.

But something surprising is happening in Norway. The shift helps explain a similar phenomenon in the United States that has been thwarting efforts to increase the number of Americans pursuing higher education. Even though tuition is almost completely free here, Norwegians whose parents did not go to college are just as unlikely to go themselves as are Americans whose parents did not pursue higher education.

This conundrum demonstrates a critical point, according to higher-education experts: Money is not the only thing keeping first-generation students from seeking degrees. Culture plays a role as well.

“This is almost a laboratory case, where we get to control one factor—namely, cost—and see what happens,” said Rice, who in August will take over as head of Norway’s Oslo and Akershus University College. What happens is that—even though it’s essentially free—only 14 percent of children from the least-educated families in Norway attend college, compared to 58 percent of children from the most-educated families, according to a 2013 analysis by a Norwegian education researcher, Elisabeth Hovdhaugen.  

That’s almost exactly the same proportion as in the U.S., where the cost of college is borne largely by students and their families, and where the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation reports that only 13 percent of children of parents without higher education end up getting degrees themselves.

“I don’t think that people understand it’s not about money,” said John Gomperts, the president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of organizations trying to steer more young people, especially socially and financially disadvantaged ones, to and through college.

The discrepancy in college attendance rates is a huge issue, considering that fully one-third of children aged 5 to 17 in the United States have parents who did not go to college, the College Board reports. And this is at a time when policymakers are trying to increase the number of Americans with degrees, who will be needed to fill the roughly two-thirds of jobs by 2020 that will require some sort of college or university training, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education in the Workforce.

Curt Rice is set to take over as the president of Norway’s Oslo and Akershus University this August. (Courtesy of Oslo and Akershus University College)

“Norway is an interesting window” into the problem, Gomperts said. “If you come from a background where everyone goes to college, there’s no question that you’ll go to college. But if you grew up in a challenging community where nobody went to or succeeded in college, there’s no one at home who is going to know how to navigate the system. It takes the right amount of social preparation and support. That’s the magic.”

Sixty-eight percent of American high school students go on to college, the Department of Labor reports. In Norway, the proportion is about 62 percent, according to the OECD.

The Norwegian system eliminates some obstacles in addition to cost. For example, except for kindergarten, primary and secondary schools are funded nationally, not locally, so there’s ostensibly no difference in education quality between higher- and lower-income towns and cities, as there often is between wealthy suburban and poor urban districts in the U.S. And the Norwegian funding system for higher education is very easy to understand, while the American system of grants and loans is complex and often confusing, even to families with college-going experience.

But the stringent principle of social equality in Norway also means it lacks programs providing academic support to first-generation or low-income students in college. (There are a few programs for immigrants and women in fields in which they are underrepresented.)

“Helping students from low socioeconomic status does not happen at all,” Hovdhaugen said in her office in Oslo at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, across the street from the royal palace. “It’s the idea of the equitable society, and that students are considered adults, independent of their parents. You could almost turn it around and say that if the students whose parents with high income were not eligible for support, that would be judged as very unfair.”

Also, because wages in Norway remain high for blue-collar occupations, she said, there’s less of a financial incentive for some Norwegians to bother with college. They can get jobs more quickly, and earn almost as much money, working as plumbers or electricians. American higher-education advocates worry that a similar phenomenon might be happening in the U.S., as people increasingly question the return on investment for degrees. A new federal report shows that the average annual earnings of adults ages 25 through 34 with bachelor’s degrees actually fell from about $53,000 in 2000 to roughly $47,000 in 2012—even as tuition continued to rise.

A Pew Research Center survey found that 57 percent of Americans say the higher education system fails to provide good value for what it costs.

“A bachelor’s degree in the U.S. has been seen as one serious option for getting into the middle class, whereas in Norway everything is a ticket into the middle class because everyone is in the middle class,” Rice said. “It’s now less clear that it really is a ticket into the middle class in the U.S.”

American students’ scores on the SAT and other college-entrance exams also tend to correlate with the level of their parents’ education; the better-educated a student’s parents, the higher he or she scores on the tests, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT. And since education affects income, children whose parents didn’t go to college are also unlikely to be well off, said Margaret Cahalan, who oversees research at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. And families that are less well off are statistically more likely to face health problems, problems with the law, and unplanned pregnancies, among other challenges. Students from such backgrounds “are going to be on average facing more obstacles than a student who comes from a more advantaged background,” including nonfinancial ones, Cahalan said.

But perhaps the most important lesson is that cultural, and not just economic, considerations may be what’s often keeping first-generation students from going on to college. When considering that step, many young people from backgrounds such as these, Gomperts said, “don’t even really know that they can go to the library and borrow books” instead of buying them.”

“How do you know that? You’re not born knowing such a thing. And who’s going to tell you? Stripping away the money piece shows how complicated this is.”


This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.