As my fiance is preparing herself for an internship in a Finnish school, I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about their widely-regarded educational system from her research. My most recent revelation has been that, besides providing free university tuition for their qualifying students, they also give out a 440 Euro stipend (as of 2006)--roughly $655-- for those students' expenses. To Americans, this may seem extravagent, but it is the obvious means for the Finns to get the most out of their investment. They recognize that they want their children to pursue higher education, because that will put them in higher positions in the global economy. In those higher positions, they will earn more money (often from outside the country), and in turn they will pay more taxes back to the Finnish state. When all is said and done, they will more than repay their tuition and their stipend, and the country turns a profit.
If you don't trust my economics, consider that we recognize the same priciple in the United States. We sell student loans on the grounds that better educated students make more money in the end, enabling them to repay their student loans plus interest. All we have done in the United States is allowed unscrupulous financiers to reap the profit while saddling our children with debt, instead of keeping the profits for the country and providing a clear, unencumbered path for our students.
On a related note, Finland (like most European countries) provides an opt-out from high school to a trade school at 16 years of age. Forty-five percent of students take this option. Besides simply being nice to provide extra choice for students, this has a more important social consequence. In Europe, plumbers and electricians are respectable people. They made a choice which carries no stigma. In the United States, however, these individuals are regarded as failures; they are the dropouts who couldn't make it through the system. The dignity of labour is lost when we regard getting off the educational bandwagon at any point short of six-digit salary professional as simply being unable to 'go the distance'.
Some will say I'm unamerican. I say that Americans deserve better than they're getting.