SANTIAGO, Chile — Ivàn Pinto is currently a biology student at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile. The school is one of the best in all of South America, and Pinto feels lucky to be a student.
“It’s a very competitive opportunity in all senses. And there are just a few opportunities for lower and middle class [students]. You will see lots of people even smarter than me not studying; they are working, which is very common at age 18,” Pinto said.
It is very expensive to get a college education in Chile. Annual tuition is often upwards of $4,000, second only to the United States among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. In the absence of financial aid opportunities, Chilean families pay an average of 85 percent of the price of university, more than any other developed country.
“I have had a great experience. It’s going on. I didn’t know about these opportunities when I was younger. You gotta pay a lot to be educated,” Pinto said.
Ivàn will graduate with student loans and will have only five years to pay them off. Without financial aid, loans are the only option available to most students. Interest rates from private banks often exceed 8 percent; government financed loans are only slightly better (5.8 percent interest). Nevertheless, since 2007, 350,000 Chileans have taken out government-financed loans.
This makes a college education difficult for all but the wealthiest Chileans. And it is one of the biggest political issues in Chile right now.
In December 2013, Michelle Bachelet won the presidential election in Chile by the largest majority in at least 40 years. Bachelet won, in part, for promising to reduce inequality in Chile by providing free education.
Income inequality in Chile is the highest of all 34 nations in the OECD. Studies show that if countries with higher inequality were to invest more in education, children of all backgrounds would be able to develop the skills and abilities needed for the future. This would lead to more equal earnings and ultimately reduce income inequality.
In a speech on election night, Bachelet vowed to address this. “Through the prism of education, we have been able to dream of a fairer Chile,” she said. “Profit cannot be the motor of education, because education is not a commodity. Dreams are not sold on the market.”
And more than dreams are on the line. “People with no degree in Chile have a problem,” Pinto said. With a good degree, you have an airbag.”
Pinto was born into a poorer family in La Granja municipality in Santiago. “I would describe my neighborhood as sketchy and dangerous,” he said. “Sometimes there are shootings by criminals, or sometimes your neighbor could be a bad guy that goes to upper-class neighborhoods and steals things.”
Neither of his parents had the opportunity to go to college, something which has had a big impact on his life. “I would like to show my kids how I lived my first 18 years of life, because it is really, really different than what I have seen the rest of my life since I turned 18,” he said.
Pinto now has several nieces; according to his girlfriend, he is always preaching the importance of education to them. “Ivàn is always telling them, ‘You have to go to school and make sure you study and go to classes. If you want to do something in your life this is how you’re going to get there,’” said Briana.
Among the new experiences Pinto has had since he turned 18 is his first trip to the U.S. “I felt very rejected often times because I was in too close,” he explained. The normal greeting in Chile is a peck on the cheek – much more intimate than a handshake, or “stretching hands,” as Pinto put it.
As for the future of education in Chile? Briana and Pinto are somewhat hopeful. “I think that Bachelet is going to try to pass legislation to make education better, but I think she’s going to run into a lot of problems. I think there will be a lot of negotiations in the next year,” Briana said.
– Claire Karban