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.