The more I learn about the university system in Finland, the more I marvel at how accessible it is. My opinions are of course colored by the system I experienced in my home country, a place where college is very, very expensive. If you do not want to pay tens of thousands of dollars or if you cannot pay tens of thousands of dollars, your choices for undergraduate education are essentially: go to community college, get a scholarship (sports or merit), get the military to pay for it, or take out a loan. (Working your way through college as you study, very much an option for previous generations, is becoming increasingly impractical.) Those without resources (either in actual money or in life-skill wherewithal or support to Figure Out A Way) simply do not go to college. The assumption seems to be that you don't go to college, unless you can mount a huge campaign to get yourself there. Which plenty of people do, with great success! But it can be tough.
Here in Finland, the assumption seems to be that if you would like to go to college, well, please do! There is so much support available for Finns who want to get a bachelor's degree (and more often a master's degree as well, since they are usually rolled into a 5-year program of studies that nets them both degrees).
First, there are no tuition fees at Finnish universities. None. There is a fee of around €150 that students have to pay each year, but it's to belong to the student health union (or something like that) and not for tuition. So already, that is tens of thousands of euros a prospective uni student doesn't have to worry about.
Second, university students get a study grant of €250/month.
Third, university students can apply for low-interest student loans of about €650/month. I couldn't find the exact terms in writing, but students have told me that if you finish your degree on time, a huge portion of the loan is just flat-out forgiven. This loan is taken out and guaranteed through KELA (the social welfare system here), so students are not dealing with individual banks or possibly predatory lenders.
Fourth, university students can still work and make up to €650/month of their own money before affecting the amount of the assistance above.
Fifth, university students can apply for housing assistance. Depending on their income and rent and other variables, this could be around a couple hundred euros per month.
The last and my most favorite benefit is that uni students can eat at on-campus dining halls for practically FREE. A full lunch with salad, bread, vegetable sides, and a hot main course is about €2.50 for students. (Staff pay €5.80 and visitors pay €6.60 for the same meal).
To me, as an American, all of the above seems like a glorious red carpet rolled in front of the feet of anyone wishing to go to college in Finland. I am sure there are pitfalls or drawbacks I don't understand, and while I did my best to explain the amounts and terms above, it's possible I've missed something or made a mistake. But doesn't it seem like someone who wants to go to college in Finland can just...go?
Some final thoughts: aside from concrete financial assistance, there are other aspects of the Finnish deciding-to-go-to-college experience that are so different from my own. The questions I dealt with included: Which university can I (or my parents) afford? Where am I likely to get a scholarship? What is the cost of living in that city? And if all these factors do fall into place, am I left with a quality program that I actually want to attend? Here in Finland, while there are certainly particular programs at particular universities that are more prestigious, in general, any of the 15 or so universities in the country will be great. Just pick a uni, pick a program, and go!