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The costs of higher ed

Few German students pay tuition. But there is no German Harvard.

Students demonstrated against German education policies in Hannover this summer. JOERG SARBACH / apn
Students demonstrated against German education policies in Hannover this summer. JOERG SARBACH / apnRead more

Tobias Peter is a political reporter and news editor at the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger in Cologne, Germany

College students in Germany won't be going into debt too deeply for their education any time soon. Consider the mass protests that erupted on campuses when several German state governments called for the end of free tuition.

"Education is a human right," said Katharina Marth, a protest organizer who is studying law at the University of Rostock. "It should be free to everybody."

Even the university president was sympathetic, Marth says. "He didn't force us to leave the lecture hall for a week," she reports, "and one morning he even brought bread rolls for the students who had been sleeping there."

The protests were largely successful, with only two out of 16 German states still charging tuition - roughly $650 a semester.

Germany is not unique on the costs of college. Finland and Denmark offer free tuition, and other countries charge only about $1,000 a year. In contrast, tuition in the United States can cost tens of thousands of dollars - and costs have been rising in recent years.

Of course, education isn't free. Someone is paying those bills in Europe. But the approach of European countries and of the United States couldn't be more different.

"In the U.S., many people would like to cut government as much as possible," says Peter Loesche, a political scientist from Berlin. "In continental Europe it is much more accepted to regard government as a supplier of public goods - and to pay for this service."

Tobias Altehenger appreciates Germany's approach. The 24-year-old student at the University of Cologne says it is difficult enough to afford college even without tuition. "I already have a job so that I can pay for my living expenses," he says.

But he sees drawbacks at a publicly financed university. "I've taken part in courses that were designed for 50 students, but have been attended by 80 of them," he says. Yet Altehenger also says that you will also get into small classes with great tutors once you have found your way through the system.

An opposing view on free tuition, one that is common in the United States, can be summed up by Mary Ellen Jones, a small-business owner and tea-party member from Delaware County: "That's just European socialism. I worked hard all day so that I could pay for the college I attended in the evening, and everybody who really wants to have an education can just do the same."

She adds: "Why should I pay with my taxes for other parents' children to go to college? That's crazy."

Germany's total tax revenue was more than 36 percent of its GDP in 2010, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, while in the United States it was about 25 percent. Even conservatives in Germany make education an exception when they talk about cutting government expenses. Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel once proclaimed that she wanted Germany to be a "republic of education."

"A country's economy benefits from as many people as possible having a good education," says Hans-Dieter Daniel, a professor at the University of Zurich. "That's why some governments consider it worth paying for everybody's college education."

Still, there are shortfalls. Parliament member Ernst Dieter Rossmann says there is not enough money in the country's university system. "Experts say we need to spend at least 21/2 billion dollars more," says Rossmann. Conservatives wanted to address this with the tuition proposal - but the plan was overwhelmingly rejected by the public. Rossmann, a member of the Social Democratic Party that opposed the tuition plan, says Germany must live up to the example of Scandinavian countries that spend even more public money.

When it comes to alternative means of financing, European schools can learn from their U.S. counterparts. "It's not all about tuition or public money," said Daniel, the Zurich researcher. "A university like Harvard can rely on the assets of a huge foundation, and this is a concept that other countries should pick up and follow, too." Daniel said foundations allow universities to operate more independently, making it easier for them to organize and sustain world-class research.

The reliance on public funding might be one reason there isn't a German Harvard. In a World University Ranking, Germany's top school, Technical University Munich, places 53.

The United States offers a wide range of schools, from community colleges up to the Ivy League. In Germany, public universities vary in size and areas of expertise, but they are similar in terms of quality. There are a few private institutions that charge a modest tuition, but they are not considered better than public schools and, as a result, find it hard to attract students.

"We want to offer the same high standard to everybody who is attending our universities," says Rossman.

And that offering should be free, insists Katharina Marth. She is already preparing new protests against the last two governments in Germany that are charging tuition, organized around next year's elections. Other state governments have already lost elections when tuition was on the agenda.

The American system, which is supposed to promote freedom and opportunity, leaves students with thousands of dollars in debt. "That's not a way to start a life," she says. "How are they supposed to build a house, to support a family?"