The last month has seen an abundance of articles about the wonders of German education. Well, specifically one wonder: the fact that public universities here are free. From CNN to the Washington Post to CBS News, the underlying narrative has focused on the fact that Germany is giving away what so many of us (or our parent's) have paid dearly for. Eight Hours and Change even made it in, featuring in a piece from DNAinfo Chicago on the opportunities for Americans to study in Germany.
Many of these pieces have focused on the financial implications almost exclusively, as exemplified by CNN's lede: "If you want a world-class education without the hefty price tag it usually carries, it's time you pack your bags and head to Germany". Gabrielle Heinen-Kjajic, Lower Saxony's Minister for Science and Culture, has also featured prominently, thanks her effective encapsulation of this perspective in her statement about the decision to get rid of tuition fees, saying it was made "because we do not want higher education which depends on the wealth of the parents".
This sentiment is echoed by Hamburg’s senator for science Dorothee Stapelfeldt, but she adds a few points in her remarks that are important for anyone thinking about taking advantage of the German government's largess.
There are two important phrases from this quote for those of you thinking about studying in Germany.
"traditional academic family background"
In the United States, the system can be so byzantine and confusing that it prevents qualified students from reaching their potential. Many students whose parents haven't been through the process get lost, and often end up giving up on the dream of going to college. Germany has a much more simplified admissions process than we have in the States, which means that students don't have to jump through hoops to gain admittance. If you have the grades and test scores, you will get into the program where you want to study. Extra curriculars, Leadership activities, Sports, Musical instruments; none of these matter in German admissions.
"high quality standard"
Germany is consistently rated as having the third best university system in the world, but that belies its real strength. While American universities are very strong at the top, Germany has strength throughout the system, from top to bottom, which means that no matter where you study, you can feel confident that you will receive a high level of education. This is because German universities were designed initially to serve regional needs, and therefore had to have higher standards across the board to meet the requirements of all the students in their area. They've only recently started to develop into more internationally-minded institutions, and the majority continue to enroll mostly students from the immediate area surrounding the university.
Just because something is free, doesn't mean that it has any value. But German universities are one of those rare finds, a completely gratis offer that confers incredible benefits on anyone who takes advantage of it. And, in the end, it's these benefits that are the real reason to study in German, not the fact that it's free.