A ‘free’ first degree can be costly

Greek universities are state-financed and run so students do not pay fees – at least at undergraduate level. However a first degree is anything but cheap, with 'other' costs ranging from as little as €1,000 (US$1,300) to €10,000 – and even €100,000 – a year depending on who you are, the socio-economic position of your parents, the institution attended, the length of studies and even your lifestyle.

The pursuit of a university degree starts some three years before entry, in the first class of senior high school. Very few students manage to gain a university place without a three-year preparation period at so-called preparatory schools – frontistiria – which run alongside the school course.

Parents, who are often more competitive than their scions, insist that their offspring take on as many as four or five and often more subjects, to be able to cope with the entrance exams at the end of that period. The cost varies from as little as €300 to €400 per month and rises for private lessons – often with the same teacher as in the school class – to €1,000 per month or €8,000 to €9,000 a year.

At the end of the three years, and provided the students have passed all their exams, they face the Panhellenic Entrance Examinations. The grades they attain determine the courses they are able to pursue and the university they attend.

This system leads to many students studying subjects they do not want and for which they have no talent at all.

Recently the Ministry of Education decreed that the grades gained in the three years of senior high school would count towards the grades for entrance to a university. At a stroke, this raised the anxiety levels of students while strengthening the hold preparatory schools have on education – and thus securing their long-term profits.

Just under 100,000 students competed for 72,763 places in tertiary institutions, the education ministry reported last August.

Students who do not succeed in gaining a place are divided more or less equally between so-called post-secondary education colleges which style themselves as ‘private universities’: a level of education as yet illegal in Greece.

Or those who miss out head off to a university abroad, mainly in Britain or the United States but also in some Balkan countries such as Bulgaria and Romania.

Those who succeed in getting into a university in their home town or one nearby are lucky: the cost of a degree is reduced substantially because they can live at home and have minimal travelling expenses.

Difficulties arise when they have to study far from home and families have to provide for rent, accommodation, living and travelling expenses that are estimated to range from €7,500 to €10,000 a year. The total cost for a three-year degree can then amount to €49,500, or as much as €60,000.

Students with problems pursuing their studies away from home can apply for a transfer to a university nearer home provided they satisfy certain stringent conditions. But the proportion of those transferring from another institution cannot exceed 10% of that institution's total student population.

According to the ministry, there are currently 12,848 applications for transfer. It is likely that less than half will be authorised and not before next January, with students having to compulsorily attend the first semester in the university where they were admitted.

A substantial number of students study in Balkan countries where a degree can cost as little as €10,000 a year while in England and the US the cost can be as much as €40,000 (US$50,300), depending on the university and the lifestyle of the students, and is often as high as €60,000 to €100,000 a year.

Although private universities are not yet allowed to operate in Greece, Greek students can obtain a degree in so-called ‘colleges’ validated by a British or an American university through a franchise agreement.

The cost in this case also varies because these institutions operate in the ‘twilight’ of the post-secondary, pre-higher education area and charge fees on a per subject basis. The amount depends on the number of subjects per course, the reputation of the college, and custom and practice.

On average, the colleges charge between €500 and €600 a subject, bringing the annual cost to €6,000 to €7,000 but sometimes up to €10,000 a year for a three-year degree – a total close to €30,000.

Parents prefer to register their children in these colleges – despite the fact their degrees are not recognised and graduates have to go through an additional examination process to secure professional rights – rather than sending them abroad because they save on living expenses in a foreign country.

So, the cost of a first degree varies according to where you study, whether at a metropolitan university, one in your home town, or one on the other side of the country; whether at home or abroad; and whether you are attending a state or a private university.

Moreover, a student’s particular lifestyle – whether he or she is capable of living frugally or not and the kind of money parents are able to allocate for living expenses – by and large determines the cost of a first degree in most cases.