"What we have said is that (a university) education will be free for all young people who can't pay for it, but those who can pay for it should make an effort to do so," Pinera said last month.
Pinera has proposed ensuring a free university education to 40 percent of Chile's poorest families, who earn less than about $500 a month, an offer that would eventually increase to 60 percent.
Chilean education expert Patricio Meller argues that doing away with private universities won't halt the soaring cost of tuition, which is hitting all institutions as enrollment rises. As long as schools set their own rates, costs will continue to grow, Meller said in a recent newspaper interview.
"All the problems, in their origin, lie in the market," Meller said. "If for-profit universities are closed, this isn't going to stop the accelerated increase in tuition. This isn't going to increase student credit. This isn't going to decrease the cost of credit. ... The university students have confused profit with the market."
After playing defense for months, Pinera has recently taken a harder stand toward the protesters, including pushing a law to penalize anyone who incites rioting or acts of violence such as the occupation of schools or university campuses. Chile has seen more than 40 student marches, many of them resulting in vandalism and violence, since the movement began.
Still, support for the students remains high among Chileans: 67 percent last month compared to 79 percent in September.
While admitting disappointment, the students point out the modest gains they have made.
Interest rates on university student loans have been reduced from 6 percent to 2 percent; Congress has discussed refinancing debt for 110,000 people behind in their payments; and opposition lawmakers have promised they won't reach any backroom deals with the government, student leader Vallejo said.
Perhaps the students' biggest accomplishment has been the attention they've won worldwide, as images of empty schools and massive protests circulated worldwide for months. That has inspired action around the region, with students in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia also taking to the streets to demand more public investment in education.
"The state should be responsible" for financing education, said Juan Sebastian Lopez, 24, a law student at the private Universidad Externado in Bogota, Colombia. "Our fear is that it will become like it is in Chile."
As part of their long-term strategy, Chilean students have shifted away from protests and are instead lobbying the ruling party and center-left opposition in Congress to implement their demands.
On top of that, Vallejo said students could secure permanent gains by running as candidates in the 2012 elections for 345 mayorships plus hundreds of other city positions.
"There is a lack of representation in Congress," she said. "This is a reality and I hope young people empower themselves and realize that this is the way to change the country."
Marta Lagos, director of the Latinobarometro polling company in Chile, said, "It is clear that future politicians are going to emerge from this group."
The reality for Chilean students, though, remains unchanged.
Javiera Kobayashi Duran's father still works three jobs at a woodworking shop, a door factory and a Web-design company so that the 20-year-old can study at the prestigious private Catholic University in Santiago. Ten months of tuition and school supplies cost the family $12,000, and the expenses will rise as Kobayashi Duran's brother enters college in 2013.
"I know my family is sacrificing a lot so that I can study," Kobayashi Duran said. "Because of this, I'm taking advantage of the opportunity that they are giving me. I study a lot."
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
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