Denmark's free education policy has created 'eternity students' who never graduate

  • Denmark has a term for people who don’t graduate in the normal five-year track: eternity students.
  • Because Danish students receive a monthly grant and pay no tuition, some feel compelled to move through their studies without thinking about the future.
  • A 2015 amendment made it easier for universities to push students through, but the trend still exists.

As one of a handful of countries that offers free tuition to college students, Denmark grants students enormous freedom from debt and the pressure to declare a major right away.

But some Danes, especially older citizens already in the labor force, say the extra freedom can eliminate a crucial sense of urgency for 20-somethings to become adults. The country now deals with “eternity students” — people who stick around at college for six years or more without any plans of graduating, solely because they don’t have any financial incentive to leave.

“With education being free, the Danish word ‘evighedsstuderende’ has risen,” Daniel Borup Jakobsen, a 24-year-old recent graduate and current vice president at the software company Plecto, told Business Insider. “It refers to a person who never finishes his studies but continuously keeps changing study program year after year.”

A 2015 amendment tries to motivate the eternity student

For years, Denmark has had a program that allots students a monthly grant of around $1,000 to cover living expenses. According to Jakobsen, the freedom enables people to float in a kind of listless state, only half-considering their options for the future.

The country has made some headway to counter eternity students. In 2015, the Danish government proposed and passed an amendment to the Study Progress Reform giving universities more power to hurry students toward graduation.

Thousands of students protested the measure at the time, criticizing it as a way to remove their freedoms. Those in favor of the amendment claimed it would add more tax dollars to the economy — some $266 million, according to government estimates — and make the university system more efficient.

“It has expanded over the years, so university students, when this reform was decided, were spending a year and a half more [enrolled in school] than they were supposed to,” Søren Nedergaard, an official in Denmark’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science, told The Atlantic. “The conception was: This was more than enough. It didn’t need to be this long.”

The trend is waning but nowhere near close to disappearing

Jakobsen said the amendment has definitely reduced the trend of eternity students, but they’re still present on college campuses. Danes even have the word fjumreår, or “the year of goofing around,” during which they take few classes and travel abroad.

In any case, Jakobsen rejected the idea that free tuition was a bad thing because it created the side effect of students waiting too long to graduate.

“Someone looking from the outside may raise the question whether students provided with free university education are as motivated to study hard as those who pay for it,” he said. “My impression is that those two things aren’t correlated. My belief is that your motivation to succeed in your studies is in no way linked to whether you’re paying for your tuition or not.”

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