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Martha Dalton
Understanding Germany: Why do you have free tuition?

Why do German colleges have free tuition?
Why do German colleges have free tuition? | Foto (detail): © Getty Images

While college students in Germany enjoy free tuition, that’s not true for students in the United States. Young people often borrow money to pay for their education. In fact, student loan debt in the U.S. has reached a total of $1.5 trillion dollars or about 1.36 trillion euros. To solve the problem, some U.S. presidential candidates are promising free college if elected. And they’re pointing to Germany as a model. Close-Up journalist Martha Dalton is from the U.S. and wanted to find out more about how the German system works.

By Martha Dalton

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In the city of Atlanta, where I’m from, there’s a pretty famous college there called Morehouse. It’s an all-male, historically black college with some well-known graduates. The most famous is probably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During Morehouse’s graduation ceremony last spring, the speaker, Robert Smith, made a big announcement. “I’ve got the alumni over there, and this is a challenge you alumni. This is my class 2019”, Smith said. “And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.”

Smith is a Morehouse graduate himself. He’s also a billionaire. Since graduation day, he has followed through on his promise to eliminate the debt for those 400 students. Brandon Manor is one of them. “It was so much joy,” Manor said, remembering Smith’s announcement. “It was tears. It was hugs. It was almost like something you would dream about or see on TV, but I was there.”

USA: $100,000 tuition fees

Brandon said he was facing more than a $100,000 worth of debt. It may be hard for German students to imagine borrowing such a huge amount of money to pay for college. But Brandon is just one of millions of U.S. college students who graduate with that kind of debt. That’s why some U.S. presidential candidates are promising free college tuition if they’re elected, and they’re looking to systems like Germany’s.

So, how does this system work? To find out, I spoke with Gerhard Muller, the vice president of student and academic affairs at TUM. “We have a large proportion of tax money,” he said. “So in total will our university has approximately 1.4 billion euros as a budget, and from this 630 million euro is tax money and then of course, we have other money resources.” Some money comes from private donations. The school also competes for money from the German Research Foundation.

But public colleges in the U.S. also receive tax money and private donations. But taxes here are higher than they are in the U.S. Muller says there’s a consensus among Germans that education is valuable. “We are aware that there is a need for investment in our youth in order to train them to prepare them with competencies for a future profession, where we as older people in the society will also benefit from and this is the reason why we consider this as taxpayers in Germany as an excellent or I would even say the best investment we can do,” Muller said.

Education is the foundation for an equal society

That consensus doesn’t just apply to German citizens. Michael Makled is in a master’s program at TUM. He’s from the U.S. and is still paying off his student loans from college. He says his financial responsibilities in graduate school aren’t as stressful. “Here, it was just like you pay your enrollment fee,” he said. “It's 140 euros or something like that. So it kind of was strange though, because immediately after I paid my enrollment fee then I was like, ‘Okay, so now I have to think about the cost of living, how do I pay for my apartment and so on.’” In the U.S., Makled says, that would be low on his list of concerns. “An apartment after spending like tens of thousand dollars in tuition,” he said. “That's just like an afterthought.” Michael says his German friends think about education differently. “It's free here in Germany because we think it's just like a foundation for an equal society,” Makled said. “ I was like, ‘Huh. Oh, that's interesting.’”

As more U.S. political candidates promote the idea of free college tuition, their critics often accuse them of wanting to raise taxes in an effort to turn the U.S. into a socialist country. But Gerhard Muller says that’s not a fair comparison as far as Germany is concerned. “It's not socialism, what we have,” he said. “It's really a competitive society. But you shouldn't mix up socialism with a good treaty between generations. This is something very different.” But you may remember, some German colleges DID start charging tuition in 2005. It wasn’t much – about 500 euros per semester – still well-below the U.S. average. Still, people protested and tuition was eliminated.

Phillipp Lergetporer, a researcher with the IFO Center for the Economics of Education,
says the negative reaction probably didn’t have much to do with the amount students
were asked to pay.“One thing which probably is important for Germany is that we now have had a history of no tuition which makes it I think, for politicians very hard to reintroduce something people have to pay for,” he said. That could be important for U.S. politicians to keep in mind as they promise free tuition: once people stop paying for something, it’s not likely that they’ll want to start again.