America Wants to Sell You a Foodless Future
The Exaggerating Nun

A Free University Education for Americans

Since the price of a university education in the U.S. has been climbing for decades just as quality crumbles, some Americans are looking with interest at German universities. Rebecca Schuman at Slate makes some cogent points:

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 studentspends on books—but even that amount was considered “unjust” by Hamburg senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt.)

...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.
I'd make a few other points:
1. You don't have to have great US grades to get admitted to a German university. Trust me, Germany routinely admits thousands of foreign students from developing countries whose education systems are barely functional. I'm sure someone who has a good high-school diploma will be able to find a place at some German unis, although entrance standards will vary and you'll have to fit your US credentials somehow into the utterly different German schema.

2. Germans often like to argue that their Abitur is the equivalent of a U.S. bachelors' degree but, of course, it's not. German 18-year-olds who get an Abitur are no better or worse educated than American 18-year-olds who have completed the most-talented track in a good American high school.

3. Something like 40-45% of Germans start university, but half drop out. Measuring education levels cross-culturally is tricky but about 27% of Americans graduated with a B.A. and about 23% of Germans have gotten the rough equivalent of one.

4. German universities are no-frills, sink-or-swim places. You can get an excellent education there, but you will have to show more initiative and drive and go out of your way to claim your professors' time. This helps to explain the high dropout rate.