Want to go to college for free? Move to Germany

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Trying to avoid the burden of student debt? Pick up a German phrasebook and renew that passport.

American students - and any other students, for that matter - can now attend public German universities for free.

Last week, the final German state to charge tuition ended the practice. Now people from all socioeconomic backgrounds will have the ability to pursue higher education, supporters argue.


While this might sound completely, well, foreign, to American students, it's not entirely novel. In fact, the United States has the most expensive higher education system on the planet and it's hurting us. While college attendance rates in Europe and Asia have skyrocketed, they've climbed more slowly in the U.S. - in part because low-income families struggle to pay.

Here are a few higher education models popular in other parts of the world:

No-tuition countries

Germany is the most recent country to go this route, but it's certainly not the first. Students at state schools in Luxembourg, Norway, and Argentina also don't pay tuition. Private schools still charge fees, but they tend to be significantly lower than tuition at private schools in the United States.

Tuition-for-some countries

This is a bit like out-of-state tuition in the United States, except with countries. In Sweden, Hungary and Greece, residents and European Union residents often attend for free, while others pay tuition. No free ride for Americans, but it's a pretty sweet deal for people from EU-member countries. Even for non-European Union residents, tuition is relatively low - a few thousand dollars in many places, although it varies by school and country.


Low-tuition countries

Even in places like France and Spain, where students do pay tuition or fees, the amounts are much lower than what American universities typically charge - a few hundred Euros.


Tuition-capped countries

The United Kingdom charges relatively high tuition compared to other European countries. But it's not spiraling out of control the way tuition at some U.S. colleges and universities is. That's because the government regulates the cost at both private and public institutions. Tuition is capped at 9,000 British pounds, or about $15,000 for residents and European Union members. The government subsidizes costly programs, but schools cannot just raise tuition. That means undergraduate students at highly regarded Oxford University, Cambridge University and the London School of Economics all pay that fee. Some universities charge slightly less than the government limit, but most charge the full amount. International students who are not from a European Union country pay significantly more, about 16,392 pounds per year, or $26,000.


These models understandably sound pretty appealing to students. But they're not without opponents.

Critics of the no-tuition model point out that many are in countries with relatively high tax burdens, so everyone is essentially paying for everyone else's education. Considering that Europeans tend to view taxes more favorably than Americans, the chances the model will be adopted in the United States are pretty slim.


"Sooner or later this 'free' higher education will feel less and less free as increasing taxes will likely drive the most educated, highest earning, most able Germans away from Germany and into societies where they can take home a greater percentage of their pay," Christopher Denhart, administrative director for the conservative Center for College Affordability and Productivity wrote in Forbes.

Schools also argue that innovation can be stifled because they don't have access to the same resources that a school like Harvard does. American universities continue to dominate "best university" lists in part because of their research departments, which can be highly costly to maintain.


The no-tuition model also comes with a caveat. Some schools tack on fees or charge part-time or graduate students to attend, so it is true that there are sometimes strings attached to the word free.

But proponents argue tuition-free, even tuition-capped, higher education is a solid way to level the playing field for young people born into poor families.


In no-tuition Norway, the New York Times recently reported, 44 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have a degree from a four-year college, compared to just 34 percent of Americans.

Right now, colleges in the United States do a really bad job of enrolling poor students, even when they are high-achieving.


So, sure a poor student in Norway might not be attending a Harvard-calibur school, but he's still getting a good higher education. A poor student from Boston is barely likely to enroll in college at all and he's far more likely to lack access to career counseling and quality professors than his richer peers.

There are some efforts underway to remedy the divide - offering application waivers and targeted information about scholarships to smart poor students - and some universities waive tuition for low-income students, but the idea of free college is far from being a reality in the United States, which means student debt will continue to rise.


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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