A Brief Look at Norway’s Exceptionalism and Three Native Norwegians

Part I

I’ve been conducting research on what it’s really like to live in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. I’ve been looking closely into their higher education, their taxation, their basic cost of living, and their views concerning gender equality. I have yet to look closely at how these countries deal with labor, healthcare and retirement, but these issues are also on the drawing board.

My aim is to determine whether or not Nordic people are more serene and happier than U.S. Americans. I have been investigating if it’s basically easier to survive and live more comfortably in Nordic countries, with less stress, as opposed to here in the U.S.

What makes this research unique, I think, is that I include profiles of Nordic citizens. These profiles have been written through interviews I have conducted with native residents, either via email or Skype or both. This gives the reader a more realistic view of what Nordic people are really like.

This particular piece focuses on Norway.

Abundantly Wealthy
Norway is well known for its magnificent fjords, but it is also known as the second wealthiest country in all of Europe (Luxembourg is number one) due primarily to its vast North Sea oil reserves. Its sovereign wealth fund of more than $870 billion, labeled by Norwegians as its Government Pension Fund, is the largest in the world just above Abu Dhabi’s Investment Authority at $773 billion and China’s Investment Corporation at $746.7 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute (SWFI).

Norway is also number one on the 2014 Human Development Index (HDI), a summary measure of 187 countries and UN-recognized territories that ranks a country’s overall dimensions relative to longevity and health, access to knowledge and good living standards. The U.S. is not far behind, ranked 5th on the HDI.

Accessible Higher Education
The knowledge-access dimensions of the HDI can be correlated to a country’s education system, especially when referencing the potential of a country’s overall human development efforts. As defined by HDI, human development “is about expanding the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy in which human beings live. It is an approach that is focused on people and their opportunities and choices.”

In Norway, similar to all Nordic countries, opportunities and choices concerning access to higher education are enhanced and plentiful for all its citizens mainly because college tuition is financed through its socially democratic taxation system, meaning tuition is free to those who meet the admissions requirements of their public colleges and universities.

Norway is part of the European collective of 49 countries known as the Bologna Process, a higher education reform movement that focuses on education quality, the employability of college graduates, admissions equality, increased compatibility among European higher education institutions, and much more.

Norway’s education system, which is similar to most of Europe, is comprised of elementary school (ages 6–13), lower secondary school (ages 13–16), upper secondary school (ages 16–19) and higher education. At the undergraduate level, earning a bachelor’s degree typically takes six semesters or three years. Admissions requirements at Norway’s public higher education institutions are straight forward, requiring incoming freshmen to have earned a certificate through general studies taken in upper secondary school, or, if a person is 23 years of age, he/she must have five years of schooling and work experience and have passed exams in math, natural science, English and social studies.

Overall, equality is extremely important in Norwegian society, consistently ranking high globally on promoting fairness related to gender, along with its Ministry of Education strongly emphasizing and acting upon “principles of equality and adapted learning for everyone within an inclusive environment.”

“Generally, in Scandinavia, the education system favors inclusiveness . . . Elite is a dirty word,” said Michael Booth, author of “The Almost Nearly Perfect People,” in an email interview. Booth, an expat Brit who lives in Denmark with his Danish wife, traveled extensively throughout the Nordic world of Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden to give an eye-opening account of what it’s really like to live in those Northern European countries. He wrote that Norway, in particular, is “a people basking not just in vast material wealth but in an equally viable civil cohesion deeply rooted in a shared history.”

Gender Equality
This kind of national mindset extends into gender equality issues. A May 2015 article in the Huffington Post by Mona Elisabeth Brother, the Norwegian ambassador to Canada, explained that over the course of more than two generations the Norwegian government has passed laws that have increased women’s representation in the public sector, stopped gender-based discrimination, and established a 40% quota of women who must serve on corporate boards. Mothers are also guaranteed 49 weeks of full-pay maternal leave.

Still, gender inequalities remain, just not as prominent as in most developed countries. “Women’s labour market participation in Norway is among the highest in Europe,” wrote Brother. Yet, “women still earn 86 percent of a man’s wage. Women make up 71 percent of the public sector and 34 percent of women work part-time, compared to 14 percent men.”

A highly touted statistic that comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Better Life Index heightens gender inequality concerns because it shows that a significantly larger number of Norwegian women graduate from college compared to Norwegian men, at 45% to 35% respectively. It’s similar in the U.S., but not such a wide gap, with 46% women and 41% men.

“There are obviously no straight forward explanations for these differences,” said Ragnhild Bang Nes, Psychologist/PhD at The Norwegian Institute of Public Health. “According to Norwegian law, men and women are entitled to equal opportunities and equal access to the same benefits and arenas. In practice the situation is very different.” Comments like Nes’s are common among Norwegian women despite that Norway is rated number nine out of 187 countries under the gender equality HDI category (the U.S. is ranked 47th).

Thriving in a World of College Debt
Regardless of their country’s enormous wealth, free education and progressive gender and education equality mindset, Norwegian students of all stripes do accumulate large amounts of college debt for living expenses by taking out government-subsidized loans. However, their total debt after graduation is typically less than U.S. post graduates due to not having to dole out all those tuition dollars.

To cover such common college living expenses, Norwegian students take out loans subsidized through the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund, called Lånekassen, which means “make education possible,” as explained in an email interview with Hanne Bjertnes, senior communications advisor.

Bjertnes added that a full-time Norwegian college student can receive up to $12,330 each year as basic support. “The amount is given as a loan, but up to 40% of the loan can be converted into a grant. There are three conditions for this conversion: The student must live away from his/her parents, must pass all exams and must not exceed the limits for income and assets determined by the regulations. If income/assets are higher than the limit, the amount of the loans that can be converted into a grant will be smaller.” In order for a single applicant in 2015 to receive the 40% maximum grant, his/her net assets could not exceed $44,344.

Loan Comparisons
The average amount of debt that U.S. students accumulate to earn a bachelor’s degree is $29,400, according to a National Postsecondary Student Aid Study published in fall 2013. A 2015 analysis conducted by Edvisors , a popular college planning service, claims that the average amount of debt figure for a bachelor’s degree has already increased to $35,000.

When it comes to graduate degrees, things get dramatically worse. According to data in a New America Foundation policy report published in March 2014, the median level of indebtedness for a borrower who earned a Master of Arts in 2012 was $59,000, after adjusting for inflation. The report goes on to note that for most master’s degrees, debt at the 75th percentile for degree recipients was $85,000 in 2012, after adjusting for inflation.

Lånekassen’s Bjertnes explained that the latest figures showing the average amount of debt at graduation with a bachelor’s degree in Norway is $26,800, which is $8,200 less than the U.S when using the 2015 Edvisor’s total. However, it is also important to understand that it takes three years of studies as opposed to four years to earn an undergraduate degree in Norway. At the same time, it is common for Norwegian students to take up to four years, or more, to earn a bachelor’s degree. In addition, Norwegian college students frequently experiment with taking courses outside of their declared majors, knowing that it’s basically not costing them any tuition to enroll in courses of interest that could quite possibly alter their career decision-making process.

It’s at the graduate level, however, that the debt load differences between Norwegian students and U.S. students become dramatically different. The average amount of debt at graduation with a master’s degree in Norway is $39,000, according to Bjertnes, which is considerably less than the aforementioned $59,000 of indebtedness a student with a master’s degree in the U.S. will typically accumulate. In both countries it takes two years to complete a graduate degree.

It’s also important to note that the average fixed interest rate on Norwegian government subsidized student loans currently hovers between 2 to 3.008% for both undergraduate and graduate degree loans, while the U.S. government subsidized student loan interest rates are currently at 4.29% for undergraduate degree loans and 5.84% for graduate degree loans.

Cost of Living Comparisons
It’s difficult to compare cost-of-living data on Norwegian versus U.S. students primarily because there are numerous and varied data points to consider. A student living in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston or Washington D.C. deals with a much different cost-of-living scenario than a student living in Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City or Denver. In Norway there’s not so much cost-of-living disparities, other than making note that living in the cities of Oslo or Bergen, the two largest in the country with populations of 580,000 and 213,585 respectively, costs much more than living anywhere else in the entire country.

Some general cost-of-living conclusions can be drawn by comparing what the University of Oslo (UiO) posts on its website to what the U.S. College Board reports about college student cost-of-living. Oslo, in particular, however, is a relatively expensive place. A bottle of water in Oslo is about $3.20, rent for a one bedroom apartment averages about $1,355 monthly, and a pair of 501 Levis costs more than $100, according to Numbeo.

As listed on the current UiO website under the headline budget and cost of living, the minimum monthly amount of money a student needs to cover housing, food, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses is 10,000 NOK or about $1,200. According to the U.S. College Board’s Trends in Higher Education report on 2014–15 average estimated undergraduate budgets for in-state students living on campus at public four-year colleges and universities, the minimum amount for the same expenses comes to an annual total of $14,271 or a slightly less $1,189.25 per month.

When considering total college expenses, the difference, of course, comes in the tuition costs that are not factored in the above, where the average is $9,139 annually at a public four-year college in the U.S. opposed to zero in Norway.

What Are We Doing About It?
It’s well documented that the college debt crisis is spiraling out of control in the U.S.

In an August 2015 paper by Demos titled “The Case for Debt-Free Public College,” Senior Policy Analyst Mark Huelman painted a depressing picture of the college debt crisis that should raise lots of eyebrows. Huelman pointed out the following, among plenty of additional negative impacts related to college debt in the U.S.:

- Because of the increased cost of attending college, undergraduate borrowing is disproportionally borne by low-income students and students of color, resulting in the solidification of the privileged only being able to take advantage of higher education as opposed to the further development and promoting of equality of access to higher education. This is further exacerbated due to a growing trend by flagship state institutions that, for internal financial reasons, are increasingly dispersing student aid to newly accepted freshmen who do not demonstrate financial need as opposed to distributing that aid to a lower-income student population.

- Some of the now negative predictors related to student debt, and its resulting low credit scores that numerous post graduates now have, include an inability to pursue homeownership, less job satisfaction and a “stifling of innovation and career choice among potential entrepreneurs.”

- Reduced investment in higher education at the state level, along with the Great Recession, have not rebounded to pre-recession levels, “and many states continue to propose drastic cuts to their higher education systems,” which is often considered as one of the “main culprits” to college cost increases.

These types of increasing college debt and growing education-access inequality issues, along with the resulting financial malaise happening to low-income families are not taking place in Norway, and it has not gone unnoticed. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for instance, has consistently pointed toward Scandinavia as having an education funding model that we should seriously consider emulating. All the discussions surrounding the college debt issue, such as the increasing cost, the growing inability of average and low-income Americans to afford higher education and the resulting equality of access concerns, along with the continuous drop in state aid to public colleges and universities, have grown louder and more prominent. President Obama has proposed free community college. Elizabeth Warren has been stressing increases in state and federal funding, and Hillary Clinton recently presented her $350 million debt-free tuition proposal.

There’s also a growing lobby from the GOP side that is not jumping on the free-college/debt-free bandwagon, using the “no new taxes” mindset as their primary reason for lack of support. In short, the reality of a U.S. college debt crisis that is spiraling out of control is unfortunately not going away anytime soon. So, in effect, at least for the present, we as a country are really not legislating anything that can solve the college debt crisis.

On Well Being
The OECD Better Life Index has other indicators worth mentioning here. The Index compares well-being across 34 of the world’s most advanced countries based on 11 topics the OECD has identified as essential in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life.

One of the essential 11 is income, with the U.S. ranked number one by a large margin for income over Norway, which is number 15, despite all its oil. However, to perhaps prove that money does not equal happiness, the U.S. comes in at number 13 under the life satisfaction category while Norway comes in at number four. Then, in a related essential category, the biggest disparity between the two countries falls under work-life balance, where the U.S. comes in at 29 and Norway is at number five.

Of course, no country is perfect. Norway does have its share of problems. Currently their well-publicized oil wealth is not looking as rosy as it has in the past due to the drop in oil prices and the overall increased attention being given to alternative energy sources throughout the world. Plus, Norwegians are experiencing a growing income inequality gap as well, albeit not nearly as wide as in the U.S.

Additionally, the issue of taxation was not covered in any depth here. In short, most U.S. citizens would find the taxation scheme in Norway, which can reach as high as 60 percent for upper-income individuals, to be grotesque.

Moreover, comparing Norway to the U.S. can be perceived as drastically unbalanced when you take into consideration that there are about 5.1 million Norwegian citizens compared to about 318.9 million U.S. citizens.

But lessons can be learned and best practices can be shared on both sides of the comparison charts. There may be a balance between the two countries that can result in increased equality, less financial stress and a better overall life in the U.S., especially for low-income families. It remains to be seen when and if that balance can ever be achieved.

Part II
Conversations with Young Women of Norway

Three twenty something Norwegian women post graduates disclose how they thrived through their college years and are now pursuing careers and dealing with their cost of living and life choices. While a small sample, it was also revealing to get first-hand insights from straight-forward, back-and-forth interview questions that were conducted via Skype and email.

Martine Jahre

The 24-year-old Martine Jahre grew up in Lommedalen, Norway, a rural community located about 40 minutes northeast of Oslo. She spent four years at the University of Oslo (UiO), three to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and one year enrolled in a Middle Eastern studies program. She also took two semesters abroad, one in Vietnam and the other in Argentina.

When attending classes at UiO, Jahre spent one year living with her parents and the remainder in the city of Oslo renting rooms through “collective” apartment arrangements with college friends. Her rental costs averaged about $670 per month, plus utilities and Internet access fees. She mentioned that living in a campus dormitory, which is competitive to obtain and fill up fast, average about $425 monthly. Transportation to and from the university cost her $50 monthly for a student public transportation pass.

The total amount of debt for her undergraduate pursuits was $27,450, a little more than the average. Considering that she experienced two semesters abroad as well as four years attending college as an undergraduate as opposed to the customary three years, her indebtedness to the government of Norway is not unreasonable.

Student Employment
Jahre also held a part-time job at a café earning $17 per hour. This is another part of the college debt equation that is quite different in comparison to the U.S. Jahre said that many of her friends earned as much as $25 per hour at a variety of service-level jobs. Even after taxes of approximately 30 percent on such income, students bring home enough money to cover any additional living expenses or for socking away into a savings account.

Jahre recently took her first full-time, well-paying job on a one-year, elected term as vice president of the Students and Academics International Assistance Fund (SAIH), a development aid NGO that supports local organizations and institutions working with higher education, research and capacity building in southern Africa and Latin-America. She won the elected position by spending a good deal of her time doing volunteer work and leading SAIH’s UiO chapter while pursuing her undergraduate degree. Once she completes her term she said that she will more than likely return to college to pursue a master’s degree.

Opportunities for Norwegian Women
“The job culture in Norway is pretty open and flatly structured,” she explained, but at the same time she feels that gender equality issues in Norway, similar to the U.S., still have a ways to go before reaching an acceptable level of parity. However, “because of the paternity leave system we have, it is now a culture in both the private and public sectors for men to take leave as well. (Fathers are guaranteed a minimum of ten weeks of full-pay parental leave.) This makes sure that the father is more involved from the start and seems to set a standard for both men and women to be involved in and responsible for child care and domestic chores, etc. This, of course, gives women, if not as much, at least a little more time, to focus on getting the experience needed to place themselves in the running for leadership positions.”

Hanne Bakken

The 28-year-old Hanne Bakken hails from an area called Ulsteinvik, a small harbor village of 6,000 people located on the island of Hareidlandet on the west-central coast of Norway. Similar to many students in the U.S., she has been highly mobile between earning an undergraduate and graduate degree and ultimately pursuing a career.

At the age of 18 she moved to the city of Bergen to attend the University of Bergen (UiB), located about 250 miles directly south from where she grew up. She spent four years there and earned a bachelor’s degree in Media Science. Bakken then moved to Trondheim to earn a master’s degree in Media, Communications and Information Technology from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Trondheim is located about 200 miles northeast of Ulsteinvik and a little more than 300 miles north of Oslo.

As a student, Bakken held a variety of part-time jobs for spending money, earning anywhere from $250 to $500 per month “depending on how much I worked.” She also spent time doing various volunteer work throughout her college experience. Her living expenses were covered through government-subsidized student loans.

Varied Rental Costs and Accumulated Debt
Bakken lived in six different apartments during her college days, starting with student housing for only $250 per month rent. She moved to paying $500 per month rent for an upgraded apartment living arrangement, to $1,000 per month for an apartment that she shared with her boyfriend.

After a few starts and stops along her academic pathway, she completed her master’s in 2011 and had incurred a total of $60,000 in student debt of which $21,000 was converted into a grant. She currently pays $241 per month to repay this loan at a 3.24% fixed interest rate. She explained that she will be paying this amount until the loan is fully paid off by 2031 when she will be 43 years old.

Opportunities Available for Those with a Master’s Degree
Bakken noted that she has not had any difficulties finding a job in her field as a “web editor.” She was hired at several jobs since graduating. For the past two and a half years she has held a position that pays “a good wage” as a social media and content manager for an advertising agency in Drammen (26 miles southwest of Oslo), where she and her boyfriend currently live. Without divulging her total income, she said that she now earns almost $21,700 more per year than what she earned at her first job after graduating in 2011.

“I would say it is almost impossible to get a good job without a master’s degree in many disciplines in Norway,” Bakken added. “I believe that without my relevant part-time jobs and volunteer work, my education in itself would not have gotten me very far, and the bachelor’s degree alone would not have been enough.

“Together with my boyfriend I am able to save a lot of money every month. We also have a rather low consumption and do not have a car. We can walk, cycle or take the train everywhere (35 minutes to Oslo), so we save a lot. Also, living in Drammen is somewhat cheaper than living in larger cities like Oslo… I have a good life at the moment.”

Paternity Leave Enables More Choice
When asked about how she felt about gender equality, Bakken talked about a common challenge that exists in highly developed democratic countries. “Family life plays a large role in the differences between women and men in the workforce,” she explained. “Women are more likely to prioritize family instead of career, which is one of the reasons why men are often paid more than women. But that is something we stand free to choose,” she added. “The Norwegian system enables parents to choose for themselves who stays home and how long they stay at home for maternity leave, and we have a father’s quota for paternity leave.”

Ingvill Storoy

Ingvill Storoy grew up in the rural village of Viksadlen, a place with a population of only 300, located in the municipality of Gaular, about 270 miles northwest of Oslo.

After going abroad and completing an International Baccalaureate at the United World College of the Atlantic, located in Wales, United Kingdom, she returned to Norway and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Bergen (UiB).

Storoy rented an apartment with her boyfriend and another roommate as an undergraduate. She said the cost was about 60% of the money she had available from working during the summers as a kitchen assistant and junior engineer for “about $22 per hour,” along with the government- subsidized loans she took out. Her total indebtedness came to about $16,000.

Building a Secure Life Storoy and her boyfriend, an employed teacher whom she calls “my man,” have two young children — both in kindergarten. She has an upper-middle-income position as a project engineer, — “a fantastic job,” as she affirmed, for a hydropower plant in Bergen, which is located a distant three hours drive traveling northwest from the new 1,600- square- foot sea-side house they recently built on the picturesque archipelago island of Solund.

Storoy works a four-day work week, Mondays and Tuesdays away from home in Bergen, Wednesdays off, Thursdays conducting field work, and Fridays working from home. “It’s odd, but it works for me,” she said. Her boyfriend’s workplace is a ten minute walk from where they live.

On the gender equality issue Storoy said that while she works in a male-dominated workplace, she has not experienced any discrimination whatsoever. “I feel my colleagues see me as a person first and not a woman,” she said. “However, I realize that this is not the case for all women.”

The sea-side home cost about $390,000 and they put in another $21,000 of self-built home-improvements. They had some capital for the build and “a fairly manageable down-payment,” she said, adding that their current mortgage is about 30% of their total income with the home estimated to be paid for in 20 years. “Many pay a lot more,” she added.

A Healthy Point of View
Storoy has a healthy philosophy about life in general. “I am positive by nature,” she said. “I think there will always be something to do for a creative engineer. I also know that could manage with less if necessary. Life is not supposed to be easy. Some discomfort and hardship are important in order to realize what capacities you have within yourself. I try not to get too far ahead. I want to enjoy my life in the present because life as it is now is good.”