I paid exactly zero dollars for my college degree. And then I went ahead and paid exactly nothing for my post-degree studies too. I was not a particularly gifted student, and no athlete, so I had no scholarships. My parents were upper-middle-class suburbanites, so I got no financial aid. And yet I went to the 56th best university in the world, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
How? I had one very big thing going for me: I came of age at a moment when the country I lived in, Australia, decided that tertiary education should be completely free for anybody who could get in.
The Prime Minister whose idea this was later got fired, which may explain why President Barack Obama has left his push for free college until the 11th hour of his term. Or why Bernie Sanders champions this idea on the campaign trail, but Hillary Clinton is less gung-ho.
Australian universities aren’t free anymore. Students can, however, get a loan that they pay back once their salary reaches a certain income threshold. Nevertheless, as a historical anomaly, I’m here to report on what going to college for a few hundred dollars a year in student fees does to impressionable young scholars:
1. It makes them frivolous. Many people fear that not having to pay for college will make students take college less seriously. This is absolutely true. My fellow students and I did not take college very seriously. We just did exactly what we wanted to do. We joined clubs and took on activities that would never have occurred to students who were dedicated to their studies. I took up softball, ran for student government, joined the student revue, wrote for the student newspaper, tried my hand at radio, took classes in middle English and old Norse. And I passed all my courses, as did the vast majority of my friends. Free college is still college. You feel like a loser if you fail. Plus all of those, except perhaps the Norse, proved useful to me later.
2. It makes them less choosy. The decision on whether to go to university at all was also less considered. My parents weren’t college graduates, but they expected their four kids to be. It was free. We had nothing better to do. So we went. There were no tours, no counselors, no essays and recommendation letters. Indeed, there were almost no private colleges, since it’s impossible to compete with free. There was no long, fraught period of deciding which college was right. You just went wherever you got in. Having college as a fallback position may draw in a bunch of kids who can’t manage the academics. But it will also draw in a bunch of kids who can manage the academics, but not the money. This is only a good thing if you want a more educated populace.
3. It makes them less independent. Most Australian students, even now that there are fees, don’t move across the country to study; they learn locally. They often live at home with their parents, at least initially and then move closer to campus. There are some dorms, and frat-like behavior at them is common. But for most teenagers, the on-ramp to college is not as steep. Students don’t move from a structured school and home environment straight to a whole new town. It’s just not that big a change. That means less freedom, but a softer landing when things go wrong.
4. It makes them less loyal. Spending not as much time on campus means the students’ traditions are somewhat different. Instead of living in a college bubble, people keep up with their old friends. College is just part of their lives, not their whole existence. It’s also true there’s not as much school spirit, either at the colleges, for sports games or among the alumni groups. No cheerleaders. No mascots. I’ve been to exactly one college reunion event, and that’s because I was asked to speak. College is just one part of their lives.
5. It makes them less money conscious. I worked a series of hysterically bad jobs while at college: chocolate shop, cheese shop, formal wear rental chain, jewelry chain and pavlova factory. When your living expenses are low and you’re not racking up debt, you tend to quit when jobs feel too tough. The glass-half-full way of saying that is that you can also try a lot of stuff. And, crucially for me, you can leave your job when conscience prevents you from letting one more clueless groom rent a brown wedding tuxedo.
6. It makes them take a different path after college. One of the brightest students in my year went to Papua New Guinea to work on environmental issues. Others started a clothing business. Another moved to India to teach literacy skills in New Delhi. Still others went on to do Masters and PhDs or became researchers or ministers. And plenty of them just got jobs in their chosen fields, or fooled around until they found a field that looked choosable. They may have taken college less seriously that their American counterparts, but they could be more adventurous afterwards.
Nobody panicked. Nobody had any money, but nobody needed much, so those early stakes were low. Have you ever wondered why Australians are always so cheerful? And why they travel so much? Possibly it’s because they do not have tens of thousands of dollars of college debt bearing down on their credit rating—and because beer tastes pretty good everywhere.
P.S. There is one way in which a free university hampers you: it becomes almost impossible to get your head around the idea that your child will one day need something like $50,000 a year if he or she wants to go to college like you did. So you don’t save. Sorry, kid. Ever thought of going to school in Australia?
Belinda Luscombe, an editor-at-large of TIME, writes about the science, economy and insanity of relationships—those conducted at home, work or in cyberspace. She’s also the editor of the Time for Parents newsletter and was formerly the editor of the magazine’s Culture section.