During his 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders’ call to make tuition at public institutions free for all students hit a nerve among his (mainly young) supporters. Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic candidate, has adopted this issue and proposes the elimination of tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for families with annual incomes up to $125,000. As students in the United States have faced a 500 percent increase in university tuition since 1985, it is not a surprise that tuition reform is part of the presidential race. But not all U.S. students can afford to see how the election plays out and try to avoid going into debt for a college degree.
The new semester began in October at German universities, where approximately 2.7 million students are pursuing degrees. In recent years, more and more American students have moved 4,800 miles across the Atlantic to earn a German degree. In 2015 alone, more than 10,000 U.S. students were enrolled in higher education programs in Germany. The number has increased by 25 percent within less than ten years. According to Eight Hours and Change, an educational advising service for Americans interested in studying in Germany, more than 2,000 American students have contacted the service since June 2015. Out of these interested students, most are interested in Business and Engineering, but a significant minority seeks out programs in the humanities and social sciences.
Why is that the case?
After a short trial period, Germany ditched tuition fees for students all together. Like their German peers, American students can enroll in one of approximately 1,150 programs across many fields taught entirely in English. U.S. students do not pay a tuition fee when they are willing to learn German and are willing to work for a German company for a year after their degree is finished.
For students in Germany, the “semester fee” covers administrative costs and often includes public transportation. These costs vary at each university but rarely exceed $300 per semester. Living expenses are roughly $600-$700 per month, depending on the city, adding up to about $8,400 per year.
The German tradition that education should be independent of one’s social status factors into its attractiveness to foreign students. With a large group of young people in German universities who are the first in their families to pursue higher education, German policymakers are cognizant that a tuition fee would discourage this group from enrolling in university. In Germany, higher education is seen more as a public than a private benefit. Meanwhile, the debate in America is concerned that eliminating four-year college tuition would inevitably mean handing free money to some families that can afford to pay.
The costs to get a degree in the U.S. can be $20,000-$50,000 just for tuition per year. But less expensive education in Germany does not mean that the quality of education is lower than in the United States. University graduates in Germany earn $43,000-$55,500 per year when starting a new job. Furthermore, the unemployment rate for people with a university degree in Germany was at 2.6 percent in 2014, below the national level of unemployment.
How does Germany afford it?
German taxpayers pay for higher education in order to attract more skilled workers to the country. Depending on the degree and program, the government pays between $18,000-$220,000 per student for the whole course of study. More foreign students mean higher costs for German taxpayers. While on the one hand, roughly 50 percent of all foreign students remain in Germany after completion of their degree and thus provide labor and pay taxes, on the other hand high taxes can drive the most educated, high-earning German graduates out of their homeland, seeking higher wages and less taxation.
The principle of an accessible university system without tuition fees applies to international students as well. While experts estimate that a semester tuition fee of $5,400-$11,000 for foreign students in Germany would be appropriate to cover the costs, these costs could end the flow of talented students from certain parts of the world. However, other experts estimate that the costs for international students can be stemmed by the resulting workforce. As long as 40 percent of international students stay in Germany and pay taxes, it covers the costs for all international students.
Germany faces an aging population and bringing in young immigrants is seen as a chance to overcome the need for a highly qualified workforce. International university students are seen as an asset as they bring the right credentials for job applications and have had a chance to familiarize themselves with Germany.
Maria Rentmeister is a Research Intern at AICGS in Fall 2016.