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Chileans suffer while waiting for education reform

Cristobal Steffens and his sister Natalie were the first in their family to go to college, and both emerged with good jobs. But they also joined the 500,000 Chileans who have had to take on sometimes-crushing debts. Their father put up the family home as collateral for student loans whose interest rates soared beyond what he could pay. Now the bank is threatening to evict them.

"My folks wanted to give us the best, they wanted us to become professionals and we had no other option. But this loan has practically seized our lives," said Steffens, a veterinarian who blames his early baldness on the stress of losing his childhood home.

"Chile's educational system is a fraud," he said. "And we're living a daily nightmare."

Despite more than a year of mass protests that raised hopes across Chile for education reform, few students have seen any real benefits. Politicians and students have hardened their positions, but the system is still failing families with poor quality public schools, expensive private universities, unprepared teachers and banks that still make huge profits on loans that most Chileans can ill afford.

Middle-class families in many countries struggle to pay for college, including in the U.S. where an estimated $1 trillion in student loan debt has surpassed that of credit cards and auto loans, threatening the fragile consumer economy. But Chile's higher education burden is the toughest of nearly any nation surveyed by the multi-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or the OECD. While families in Scandinavian countries pay less than 5 percent of the costs and U.S. families pay more than 40 percent, Chilean households must pay more than 75 percent from their own pockets. The government's share has been enough to provide only the brightest and poorest students with scholarships and grants. For everyone else, loans are usually unavoidable.

"In concrete terms, you could say we have accomplished little or nothing," student leader Camila Vallejo told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of Wednesday's march, which activists said drew 100,000 people. "But in broad strokes, the student movement has made a break in Chilean society. There's a before and after 2011, and we're talking about issues that were taboo in Chile for the first time."

Vallejo and other activists led millions into the streets last year asserting a fundamental right to free educations. Their solution: Change the tax system so that the wealthy pay more, and put the state back in control of the mostly privatized public schools to ensure quality.

The students "brought the state to its knees" once polls showed that most Chileans endorsed their ideas, said Juan Manuel Zolezzi, the rector of the University of Santiago, who has encouraged protesters to keep marching and pressuring the politicians. "We can't lose a generation," he said.

President Sebastian Pinera's approval ratings plunged as the protests exposed the extent of academic and economic inequality in Chile, reaching an all-time low of 24 percent this month, according to a tracking poll by the Center for Public Studies, a nonpartisan nonprofit academic foundation in Santiago.

Pinera has refused to radically change the system but instead proposed spending nearly $1 billion on thousands of new scholarships, and lowering student loan interest from an average of 6 percent to 2 percent. The president said the plan would increase access for Chile's most promising students to the best schools, and reduce the financial burden on their families.

Pinera also proposed creating the post of higher education superintendent to oversee colleges and universities, and Education Minister Harald Beyer called on universities to explain by next month just how they're spending state money.

Real change will only become possible if the private sector is regulated and education is no longer a for-profit business, said Gabriel Boric, who replaced Vallejo as president of the University of Chile student federation. "Educational problems are not going to be solved by handing out Band-Aids and aspirins to a cancer patient."

But Beyer said "we think free education is an unfair policy and therefore we won't cede to those demands." When higher education is free, quality drops and students have to struggle for years to graduate, he said. Also, poor taxpayers shouldn't have to support wealthy students, he added.

"Chile had a policy of free education before but the evaluation was pretty negative," Beyer said. "We still feel that's valid. Free education is an unfair, backward-looking policy."

To pay for the reforms, Pinera would hike corporate taxes while lowering individual income taxes. The changes are expected to win approval in Congress, but critics say they aren't enough to resolve the deep inequality in Chile's education system.

"This is not an education reform but a small change to get at a very low sum," said Jose Joaquin Brunner, an education expert. He said the increase amounts to 0.3 percent of the gross domestic product in Chile, which now spends 2.3 percent of its GDP on education, much less than most developed nations.

College tuition in Chile rivals that of the world's richest countries, the OECD found, even though per-capita income is just $15,500 a year and Chile ranks 72nd among 227 nations in household earnings.

The dueling visions of Chilean education emerged during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Chile's schools had been free before Pinochet pushed privatization and ended central control and funding of primary and secondary schools. Public education in poorer districts suffered even as a voucher system directed billions of dollars in public funds to privately-run high schools.

Many Chilean families quietly bore such burdens for years before student activists gave them a voice. Even now, many see no alternative but to take on debts, even at the risk of losing their homes, since not earning a college degree might cost more in missed earnings by graduates.

"I got into loans because I wanted to give my children a good education and it was the only option the government offered me," explained Gustavo Steffens, 67, father of Cristobal and Natalie.

He's among 106,000 borrowers who owe a total of $700 million in student loans backed by Chile's state development agency. The government provided the money at 3.3 percent interest to banks, which then lent it out at variable rates. That increased families' indebtedness to as much as three times the original loan amounts.

All told, Steffens borrowed about $50,000 to put Cristobal, 30, through veterinary school and help Natalie, 27, receive training to become a medical technician. He managed to pay off half the loan until he lost his job as a salesman. Now the bank is threatening to evict them and put the family home up for auction.

Cristobal Steffens said the bank did offer to reduce their payments from $400 to $160 a month, but he would have to keep paying until he's 55. "It's just not possible that we have to pay 8.5 percent interest and not be able to have a future, get married or buy a house," he said.

Boric also blames the center-left opposition in Congress, which also has lost popularity in tracking polls, for going along with the government's proposals.

"Today, we've said, 'No more.' We're here and we're to stay," Boric said. "The student movement keeps getting stronger while the government is every day more out of touch."

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Associated Press writer Eva Vergara contributed to this report.