This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with National Public Radio.\u00a0 SANTIAGO, Chile \u2014 So poor was the education she received at her public high school, Pilar Vega Martinez had to take an extra year to study for the Prueba de Selecci\u00f3n Universitaria \u2014 the Chilean version of the SAT. The work paid off. Her score on the PSU was good enough to get her into the top-rated University of Chile. And thanks to an important change in government policy, life got easier after that: She didn\u2019t have to pay. Chile has made college tuition-free, after years of angry public protests about escalating tuition and student loan debt and the gulf in quality between the institutions attended by the wealthiest and poorest students. And if those problems echo the complaints that are piling up about higher education in the United States, the experience in Chile also offers important lessons about the pros and cons of free tuition, variations of which are being widely promoted in America by policymakers and politicians, including candidates for president. Those complexities have affected Vega, who is in her third year of studying to be a nurse but got bronchitis and missed weeks of school. \u201cI was doing really well,\u201d she said. Now it will take her longer to finish than the free-tuition program \u2014 called, in Chile, \u201cgratuidad\u201d \u2014 will cover. \u201cI\u2019m still thinking about how I\u2019m going to pay for that last year\u201d after the benefit runs out, she said in Spanish, in a glass-walled conference room in the university\u2019s busy library. \u201cI\u2019ve had to work while studying to start saving money\u201d for it. Scandinavian countries,\u00a0Germany\u00a0and other places also make college free, but Chile\u2019s educational system has more significant parallels with that of the United States. It has a robust sector of private colleges alongside public universities, tuition\u00a0higher than anywhere outside of U.S. private and British universities\u00a0and, before gratuidad, significant student loan debt. That makes it a prime test case for the American version of the idea. Among other things, what\u2019s happened here proves free tuition is politically popular. The socialist candidate for president who made it a centerpiece of her campaign in 2013, Michelle Bachelet, won by a two-to-one margin; the Chilean congress passed it by a vote of 92-2; and the conservative who succeeded Bachelet has continued the policy. Seventy-five percent of Americans support free tuition at public universities or colleges for students who are academically qualified, a survey by PSB Research for the Campaign for Free College Tuition found. But it\u2019s expensive. After the campaigns were over and the initial exuberance in Chile had faded, free tuition cost so much, it had to be scaled down and delayed, with complex restrictions added. The same thing has happened to proposals in the U.S.; a campaign promise by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to make community college in that state tuition-free, for instance, had to be reduced to a pilot program, and the free-tuition plan in New York State set an income limit for recipients. By the time gratuidad finally began, it covered not all students, but only those whose families were in the bottom half of income, a proportion since expanded to the bottom 60 percent. Even after those revisions,\u00a0the price tag for Chilean taxpayers is $1.5 billion a year. Despite this investment, the reform is making only slow progress in expanding access to education for the lowest-income students it was designed in part to help. That\u2019s because\u00a0nearly 90 percent of those low-income students already got financial aid. It does show, however, that the prospect of free tuition inspires students to enroll in college who might not have considered it before;\u00a015 percent of Chilean beneficiaries would otherwise not have sought a college education, even if they had access to a scholarship or loan, the University of Chile Student Federation Research Center reports. The government has found that Chileans who get free tuition are also slightly less likely to drop out than their classmates who don\u2019t. \u201cFor some families the assurance that they are not going to be facing any payment at all makes a difference in their willingness to take the chance and have their kid apply,\u201d said Andr\u00e9s Bernasconi, who studies gratuidad in his role as a professor at the Center for the Study of Educational Policy and Practice at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. But gratuidad doesn\u2019t cover other costs, including rent, food, books and transportation, which remain a barrier to lower-income students. \u201cTo go to university you have to get there,\u201d said Marcos Rojas Pino, who just finished medical school in Santiago. \u201cSo transport is important. you have to eat.\u201d Most American free-tuition programs also don\u2019t cover those expenses, according to a survey by The Education Trust. Because they don\u2019t, two of the most ambitious free-college programs, in Tennessee and New York State,\u00a0have failed to improve affordability for low-income students, a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy contended. In fact, that report found, in Tennessee it was higher-income students who benefited,\u00a0getting an average of nearly $1,500 each to help them pay for college educations their families could already afford. Similar criticism, that it helps the wrong people, have been leveled at gratuidad, in Chile. Because it also makes slightly wealthier students eligible for free tuition \u2014 students who went to better public high schools, and score higher on the PSU \u2014 an MIT economist projects that\u00a0they\u2019ll be more able to afford to enroll at the most selective universities, crowding out the lowest-income applicants from getting the best educations. Meanwhile, Chilean private colleges, which can participate in gratuidad if they choose, are facing a financial squeeze because, as a condition of subsidizing it, the government limits the tuition they can charge. Some have closed. Many have decided to forgo the plan, since they have relatively high tuition and serve wealthier students whose families\u2019 incomes are too high to qualify anyway. The bottom line is that free tuition is appealing but, \u201cIt\u2019s difficult, very difficult \u2014 more difficult than we thought it would be,\u201d said Claudia Sanhueza, who served on some of the committees set up to implement gratuidad and is now director of the Center of Economics and Social Policy at the Universidad Mayor in Santiago. Chile\u2019s path to free tuition began with decisions by the authoritarian dictatorship that ruled the country from 1973 to 1990. It cut funding for public education \u2014 partly because the public universities were considered hotbeds of opposition \u2014 and the private sector was encouraged to step in. Some of the private universities that opened in response took only the best and highest-income students who did well on the entrance exam and could afford to pay the price; others accepted anyone who applied and gave them comparatively poor educations that forced them into debt. \u201cThere are some institutions that are of very dubious quality which receive mostly low-income people,\u201d said Luis Felipe Jim\u00e9nez Leighton, an economist and former adviser to the education ministry who helped negotiate gratuidad. And \u201cthe higher-income people always went to good universities.\u201d This deepened socioeconomic divisions \u2014 Bernasconi notes that twice as many Chileans in the top fifth of income go to college as in the bottom fifth \u2014 in a way similar to what has happened in the United States. Unlike in the United States, however, the situation eventually boiled over into strikes and protests. Demonstrators marched in huge numbers in 2011 to rail against high college costs and large amounts of personal debt from student loans \u2014 first introduced in 2006 \u2014 that were beginning to come due in amounts that took many borrowers off guard. Students who had expected that their new degrees would bring them high pay found that, in fact, \u201cthe salary was, like, half, and they had this loan,\u201d said Bernasconi. \u201cSo for some of them this dream of being in the university or being in higher education becomes a real nightmare, especially because of the debt.\u201d The protesters also denounced the poor quality of some of the supposedly nonprofit private universities that were effectively for-profit, since their board members and administrators charged inflated leases for the buildings and grounds or paid themselves lavish salaries. Many students never graduated. Anger about these problems brought whole families out into the streets, Miguel Crispi, a student leader, remembered in his office in the headquarters of the Chilean congress in Valparaiso, where he is now a deputy, or member. A photo hangs on the wall of Salvador Allende, the socialist president deposed by the military coup of 1973. Chileans, over their breakfasts, \u201cwere talking about this,\u201d said Crispi. \u201cThey were talking about inequality. They were talking about, \u2018How can we afford a higher education? Is it fair to go into debt for studying?\u2019 \u201d The movement had not just a practical focus, but a philosophical one: that education is a right. \u201cIt was an expression of a principle and the principle was that education is the right of the people,\u201d Bernasconi said. \u201cAnd if it\u2019s a right of the people then it should be free of any economic barrier to entry.\u201d Rosa Dev\u00e9s, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Chile, helped to craft gratuidad. \u201cThe path is not perfect,\u201d she said. But when she reads the words of the new law, \u201cI feel quite proud of them. It may be just words but still they are the correct words, and I think that\u2019s a very important starting point.\u201d When the national budget wasn\u2019t enough to pay for this idealistic vision, however, the restrictions were added \u2014 on the income level required to be eligible, the amount of time that students could enjoy the benefit, how much the government would pay to subsidize them, which colleges could participate and other things. In 2016, when gratuidad began, it reached 139,885 students, or 12 percent of undergraduates, according to Bernasconi; the next year, the last for which the figures are available, the proportion grew to 22 percent. The same thing could happen in the United States,\u00a0a report by the think tank The Century Foundation projected. It found that free tuition could increase public higher education enrollments by as much as 25 percent. \u201cA lot of these programs you hear about aren\u2019t that big in terms of the percentage of students that they reach because of the design decisions based on cost,\u201d said Century Foundation senior policy adviser Jen Mishory, the report\u2019s co-author. Other than the lack of support for non-tuition expenses \u2014 there are some programs that partially subsidize bus and subway passes and the cost of lunch \u2014 it\u2019s the time limit on gratuidad that most rankles students in Chile. One expert likened it to a time bomb and, sure enough, this year 27,000 of the students who had been enjoying free tuition came to the end of their eligibility before they graduated, according to the University of Chile Student Federation Research Center. Like Vega, the nursing student, if they want to continue, they have to pay. Students in Chile take 10 to 30 percent longer than the prescribed time, on average, to finish their degrees, depending on the discipline, the Ministry of Education says. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Education reports,\u00a0only 40 percent of students graduate in four years\u00a0from the institution at which they started. \u201cIn 2011 the principal problem was that gratuidad didn\u2019t exist,\u201d said Ximena Donoso Rochabrunt, who just finished law school and is studying for the equivalent of the bar exam. \u201cAnd people are still mad that its existence is only partial.\u201d Colleges and universities in Chile have gripes about the free-tuition program, too. In the first year, only a few private institutions took part. Some couldn\u2019t because they didn\u2019t meet quality requirements; others decided not to, because they serve higher-income students who wouldn\u2019t qualify and didn\u2019t want to lower their fees to the level of the per-student subsidy the government was offering. For those institutions that sign on to the plan and its price controls, \u201ccosts are going to go up and income is going to stay very still,\u201d said Claudio Ruff, rector of the private Universidad Bernardo O\u2019Higgins and president of the association of private universities, the Corporaci\u00f3n de Universidades Privadas. Already, Ruff said, 15 private universities and colleges in Chile have closed or are in the process of closing because it\u2019s hard to compete with free and because of the increased regulation that has accompanied gratuidad, even for colleges like his \u2014 named for the part-Irish leader of Chilean independence from Spain \u2014 that so far don\u2019t accept it. \u201cFor the schools that don\u2019t have gratuidad there has been an impact, because logically the student is going to look for universities or technical programs that participate,\u201d he said. Many of the rest are cutting money-losing programs, offering discounts and scholarships and adding research to attract more students, including international ones. The colleges have largely themselves to blame for this predicament, said Leighton, the economist. Their high fees helped drive the protests that resulted in the free-tuition system. \u201cFat cats,\u201d he called them. \u201cNow have to get lean. And that\u2019s a consequence of gratuidad that we didn\u2019t intend, but it\u2019s a byproduct and to some extent it\u2019s a welcome byproduct.\u201d Some private institutions in Chile may have gotten fat, conceded Ruff. \u201cBut not any more. Private universities spend more money , but they spend it better.\u201d Besides, he said in his office overlooking a grassy quad, with a portrait of O\u2019Higgins on the wall, private universities can \u201ctighten their belts faster.\u201d Already troubled U.S. private colleges are also being affected by free-tuition programs, and, as in Chile, having to discount their prices to remain competitive. This is especially true in New York State,\u00a0which offers free tuition for students at public universities and colleges whose families earn $110,000 a year or less. Thirty New York private colleges dependent on New York State residents for at least 65 percent of their undergraduate enrollment saw\u00a0a 7 percent decline in new freshmen and 60 percent reported fewer transfer students\u00a0in the first year of that program, which began in 2017, according to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, or CICU. They collectively laid off 1,535 employees. That is not a welcome byproduct of free tuition, said CICU president Mary Beth Labate. It\u2019s a dangerous consequence. \u201cWe have an excellent higher education ecosystem in New York State and that really is a function of all of the players in that space,\u201d Labate said. \u201cYou don\u2019t want to cause injury to one of the sectors because then it will cause injury to all of the sectors.\u201d As it stands, gratuidad is set to be expanded when tax revenues allow. But the argument in Chile now is over whether it should be. Some, like Deves, say yes. \u201cWhy am I going to pay for a rich person to go to university?\u201d she asked rhetorically, as the cacophony of Santiago\u2019s rush-hour traffic reached up from 21 floors below. \u201cIt is because you\u2019re not paying for the rich person. You\u2019re paying for the institution that will have all the representation of the society in it.\u201d But the country simply may not be able to afford that, said Leighton. \u201cWe\u2019re not in a state of abundance where we can finance everything,\u201d he said. \u201cYou have to prioritize some things and in the process to leave somebody in and somebody out.\u201d Sixty-eight percent of Chileans say they are against extending free tuition to everyone, preferring that only people in the bottom 70 percent of income be covered, one poll found. Conservatives, who now hold a majority in government, would prefer to put the money into primary and secondary education, where socioeconomic divisions begin. Unequal preparation, as much as their financial situation, is why so few lower-income students from mediocre high schools score high enough on the PSU admissions test to go to top universities, said Jaime Bellolio, a conservative deputy in congress who serves on the education committee. \u201cFree tuition is not the only solution for getting more vulnerable students into university or into higher education,\u201d Bellolio said in the quiet of the wood-paneled room in the congressional building in Valparaiso where the education committee meets. \u201cIf you want to have more vulnerable students in good universities and good professional institutes you have to level up the quality of education before they come.\u201d He said: \u201cIt\u2019s not as good for the elections, but it is better for the long run, and it\u2019s better public policy. Those first years are the ones that make all the difference. And we have a lot of inequality in access in those first years, much more than in the last years.\u201d But Deves said gratuidad is an important start. \u201cIt\u2019s imperfect, but it\u2019s so much better than what we had,\u201d she said. \u201cThe rich kept going to the good education. And the poor not only went to poor education but they would have to pay for the poor education at a very high cost.\u201d Whatever happens, free tuition is here to stay in Chile, Sanhueza said. \u201cThere\u2019s no going back, I think,\u201d she said.