Free College Degrees in Germany

Get ’em while they’re hot. If you are a German-related news junkie like we all are at the German Way, you might have seen your Facebook or Twitter feeds filled with headlines like these, “Free Tuition in Germany for All American Students” earlier this month.

While it is true, Americans along with all other non-Germans, can study in Germany tuition free, this isn’t actually new news. A sudden lifting of tuition for American students has not just occurred; it’s just that Lower Saxony, the last German federal state to have charged tuition, dropped their fees to create this attention-grabbing headline.

So if you are now wondering what the catch is, since there’s no free lunch, especially in a land that isn’t known for giving out smiles for free, you might be disappointed. There isn’t any real catch or hidden deal of indentured servitude, but an American considering taking up Germany on its offer for a free Bachelor’s should weigh the differences in outcome and expectations before making a decision.

Heidelberg University

The library at Heidelberg University was built in 1905. The Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg was founded in 1386, making it Germany’s oldest and one of the oldest universities in Europe. PHOTO: TBE/iStock/Thinkstock

Who Pays?
First of all, despite Germany’s bad rap for unfriendliness, it has a solid and leading social welfare system for which I remain thankful. With three children, I appreciate that my hefty taxes (second highest amongst OECD countries) give me heavily subsidized, high quality music lessons, pocket money for each child every month, and free healthcare and medicine for my children. My own healthcare is also not too shabby nor is it pricey. It is no surprise then that students enjoy their own special benefits in addition to tuition-free education, including free to greatly reduced public transportation, reduced to no entry fees in local museums and libraries, and access to subsidized food.

As I mentioned, these social benefits are all provided by tax money from German tax payers. Some commentators think that high tax payers will get fed up with having to pay for everyone else and take their money elsewhere. This seems like an extreme outsider’s perspective given that the welfare state is nothing new in Germany, just as free tuition is not. Unlike in the UK, tuition in German universities has been a failed experiment introduced in 2006 in just seven out of Germany’s 16 federal states. Universities faced enough protest so that fees have now been completely abolished. And, most taxpayers are not flocking to Switzerland or elsewhere to stash their euros.

My point is that this short-sighted and rather cynical opinion does not take into consideration that half of these foreign students in fact stay in Germany and eventually become the doctors, engineers, lawyers and musicians participating and contributing to the German society I live in and which the country needs. In addition, this recent buzz in American news outlets can potentially boost greater interest in Germany and the German culture and language in America. While irrelevant to a capitalist-minded American journalist, that’s good for my family and me.

What Do I Have to Do?
What could be perceived as a catch to this too-good-to-be-true-deal is that your German will have to be good enough to complete a bachelor’s degree in the German language. While there are a number of MAs offered in English, most BAs are conducted in German with a few exceptions.

In addition to German language skills, the equivalent of a German Abitur (university entry qualification) is required. To an American, this could be best described as an AP-packed, honors high school diploma program. Often, four AP (Advanced Placement) exams will put the average American high school graduate on par with German teenagers who have completed their Abi.

The other consideration is that European universities don’t offer a liberal arts education. You apply to the “faculty” or the department that you’d like to be part of. So, there is no two-year cushion before you have to decide, experiment and finally declare your major.

What about getting in? This is another thing that German universities have going for them over American counterparts, a less stressful admissions process. There is a lot more “luck of the draw” involved in the process, but it is much more straightforward and systematic. This link from the DAAD or German Academic Exchange Service website gives a straightforward breakdown on how to apply for a spot in a German university.

Another convincing argument for the German BA for some is that it typically takes three years to complete. As portrayed in this article, some young Americans are spending one year learning German and then enrolling into a three-year program in Germany. At the end, they come out even with their American peers with their wallets fuller and fluent in German. That is, if they complete in three years.

Which brings me to my list of cons. Often, the less financially invested students are in their studies, the longer they take to complete them.

Remember also that you get what you pay for. While all German universities now have international offices to support their foreign students, the level of support won’t be the same as what you would get in an American university. You will be expected to be independent and bring some wherewithal with you.

While on one hand, getting a degree abroad opens up a whole world of possibilities for many students, not to mention a more open mind, it may make it harder for them to come back home and work. This is a critical question that does need to be addressed early on if someone wants to study law or medicine, for example. These particular subjects are taught and structured so differently that to transfer their degrees to a different country often requires more test taking and sometimes more course work added on. In so many life situations a network and name recognition can play important roles in getting hired. Would graduates of German universities, with no work experience, be limited because of low to zero university recognition? In reality, I think for some jobs, a German university won’t help in the way that a well-respected university on a CV would, but you would perhaps lose out in “a last detail that tipped the scales” situation in a tight job market.

I’ve always called myself an exchange student for life, having studied abroad multiple times and having lived as an expat for more than a decade. Therefore, I think that if someone has the curiosity to study and live abroad and given some thought to where she or he wants to be on the other side of a BA, Germany is offering a lot of budding minds a good education and a whole lot of life experiences.

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