Germany: College is free there, even for foreign students. Why?

You Can Now Go to College in Germany for Free, No Matter Where You’re From. Should You?

You Can Now Go to College in Germany for Free, No Matter Where You’re From. Should You?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 10 2014 5:11 PM

You Can Now Go to College in Germany for Free, No Matter Where You’re From

A student sits next to a statue at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. The sign affixed to the statue’s nose roughly translates as “Education lies.”

Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Last week, Lower Saxony made itself the final state in Germany to do away with any public university tuition whatsoever. You read that right. As of now, all state-run universities in the Federal Republic—legendary institutions that put the Bildung in Bildungsroman, like the Universität Heidelberg, the Universität München, or the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin—cost exactly nichts. (By the way, they weren’t exactly breaking the bank before, with semester fees of about EUR 500, or $630, which is often less than an American student spends on books—but even that amount was considered “unjust” by Hamburg senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt.)

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is a columnist for Slate and the author of Schadenfreude, A Love Story and Kafka and Wittgenstein. She lives in St. Louis.

Well, you might be thinking, isn’t that just wunderbar for the damn Germans, with their excellent supermarket commercials and their spectacular beach nudity and their pragmatically dressed Chancellor. Now with their free college they’re just showing off. Well, here’s the kicker: Germany didn’t just abolish tuition for Germans. The tuition ban goes for international students, too. You heard me right, parents of Amerika: You want a real higher-education bargain? Get your kids to learn German and then pack them off to the Vaterland.


Of course, while it is both uplifting and jealousy-provoking to see our Teutonic friends put so much public investment into higher education—while we do just the opposite—there are important reasons that German universities have been either inexpensive or free for their entire existence. The German university experience isn’t worse than the American one, but there are vital cultural and infrastructural differences between our systems that bargain-hungry students (and their parents) might want to consider before bidding Auf Wiedersehen to Big State U.

First of all, the concept of “campus life” differs widely between our two countries. German universities consist almost entirely of classroom buildings and libraries—no palatial gyms with rock walls and water parks; no team sports facilities (unless you count the fencing fraternities I will never understand); no billion-dollar student unions with flat-screen TVs and first-run movie theaters. And forget the resort-style dormitories. What few dorms exist are minimalistic, to put it kindly—but that’s largely irrelevant anyway, as many German students still live at home with their parents, or in independent apartment shares, none of which foster the kind of insular, summer-camp-esque experience Americans associate closely with college life (and its hefty price tag). It’s quite common for German students simply to commute in for class, then leave.

Speaking of class: Academic life is quite a bit different over there. German students are typically accepted into particular majors—none of this “expanding your horizons” and declaring halfway through your junior year. You apply to college in Germany to study law, medicine, literature, engineering, etc.—and you take that program’s requirements, the end.

There is also little in the way academic advising, which in the U.S. is now so hands-on that it has become its own cottage industry within the administration. Over there, you’re expected to know what you need to take, and to take it. And by “take” I mean something markedly different than American students might expect. For example, a freshman-level literature class in the United States might have 25 students registered, and a professor who is expected to know all of them by face and name by, say, week two—not to mention grade an entire semester’s worth of assignments. A similar lower-level Vorlesung (lecture) in Germany might have an ever-changing coterie of 200 or so students, who show up when it suits them. (Yes, that includes milling into and out of the lecture hall at any point during the advertised class period.) Even in more intensive upper-level courses, students are often allowed to forego official registration until the end of the semester, when they elect to sit the sole exam or turn in the lone seminar paper. (Or not!)

Again, this system is not worse than the American one, it’s just different. But it is these differences, coupled with Germany’s higher tax investment in all things public, that account for a massive disparity in what students must pay. The tuition might be free, but if you are not a highly self-motivated learner who is fully fluent in German (with a social life based somewhere other than campus), you may still pay the price.

Still, there are plenty of mature, autonomous, self-motivated learners in our country who can’t afford college (and no, MOOCs don’t help, since they don’t offer credit unless you pay one of the universities that affiliate with them). Don’t we owe these ideal students a prestigious public option they can actually afford? Would it ever be feasible for us to adopt some German-style reform in just a few of our public institutions? I’m not saying demolish the lazy rivers (calm down, dudebros!). But what if our flagships could offer a different, deeply discounted “package” for commuter students who simply don’t want all those stupid amenities? I’m not even saying it should be free—this isn’t and will never be the socialized idyll/hellhole (depending on your point of view) that is the Federal Republic. But maybe, just maybe, we should find a way to make public education here a better bargain than round-trip airfare to Munich.