Do U.S. colleges have something to learn from German tuition policy?

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By Rachel Premack, Senior News Editor
Published November 3, 2014

When German universities began charging tuition in 2006, the backlash was swift. At the University of Freiburg, where University of Michigan History Department Chair Kathleen Canning was administering a study abroad program in the 2000s, students occupied classrooms and hung enormous banners that read, “Education is a human right.”

The fees that caused the outrage? An average of $630 per semester. At this University, in-state LSA students pay $6,579 and out-of-staters pay $20,789.

“It didn’t matter how much it was,” Canning said. “It didn’t matter that it was affordable for most middle class families. It was the principal of introducing tuition.”

Lucky for the students, the final German federal state abolished tuition in October. Now anyone — German citizen or not — can receive a free college education at one of Germany’s globally lauded universities.

Past German college students are now among world-renowned philosophers, researchers, entrepreneurs, writers and leaders. The nation is the world’s third-largest importer and exporter. More Nobel laureates are from Germany than any other nationality — save for the U.S. and U.K.

So why don’t these students have to pay the thousands of dollars per year that Americans do?

Tuition in the United States has not always been so high. At the University, adjusting for inflation, in-state students paid $1,472 in the 1969-1970 academic year. It rose, by decade, to $1,970 in 1980, $3,065 in 1990 and $5,704 by 2000.

Just as well, until the mid-20th century, higher education was something attainable only by the most elite social classes in Germany.

“The whole notion of buildings, education, was a fundamental attribute of the bourgeoisie and the nobility,” Canning said. “It was not something that anyone in the middle class or lower middle class could aspire to.”

University education remains somewhat exclusive in Germany, though its hierarchical system is becoming easier to enter. In elementary school, children take an exam that divides them into one of three schools: gymnasium; realschule or hauptschule. Only gymnasium is a university-preparatory school.

Gymnasium has become more accessible over the past few decades. According to German data portal Statista, 15 percent of students in 1952 were in gymnasium. By 2005, it was 33 percent.

The increasingly open doors of the gymnasium have caused a strain on universities the past decade and a half, Canning said. Professorships are few. In the Frieburg history department, for instance, Canning said there were nine history professors. The University of Michigan has 90.

“There’s a second tier of what they call mid-career instructors who, however, have no job security and they’re not even permanent lecturers like you would have here,” Canning added. “They’re often filling in or actually teaching for free while hoping to get a professorship somewhere else.”

Johannes von Moltke, associate professor and chair of German, said, “There’s overcrowding in German universities. Because it’s really accessible, a lot of people study.”

Rackham student Cristian Capotescu received his history degree from the University of Freiburg in 2010. Lectures are not so different in German schools than in the U.S., Capotescu described, with packed lecture halls of hundreds of students.

Where differences existed were in seminars and tutorials, the latter being something like a class section with a greater emphasis on learning how to better write, read, etc. Capotescu said graduate students often teach seminars, whereas here professors almost always lead them. Stranger yet, undergraduates are wont to teach these tutorials.

“The quality of those sections are a lot lower,” Capotescu said. “I certainly think graduate students are more qualified to teach those sections, but is it worth $40,000 a year?”

The ban on tuition in Germany was lifted in 2006. Following that, various German states began issuing small semester fees to better its quality of education. Canning said the hugely unpopular tuition actually did not help conditions at university.

“Either they just conceded that it wasn’t enough money to really do anything and it was too controversial to even bother with it,” Canning said.

Capotescu agreed that 500 euros ($624.95) per semester was unlikely to break the bank; however, the implementation of tuition on principle could later prove difficult.

“There’s always the possibility that it could be increased,” Capotescu said. “We saw that in the U.S. that once higher tuition was introduced it kept increasing.”

In 2012, the average debt of a University graduate was nearly $28,000, with 44 percent of the student body graduating with debt. Moreover, while the German government continues invest money in education, a mere 16 percent of the University’s budget come from state appropriations.

“The money we need grows and the money we get shrinks,” von Moltke said.

As recently as 1990, state funding and tuition contributed equally to the budget.

Capotescu noted issues with a huge student body, not unlike Germany.

“We assume that with American education, you pay so much so it’s better. When you look closer at elite public higher education at schools like Michigan, it’s not a perfect world or utopia,” Capotescu said. “You still have 150 students in a lecture.”

The increased tuition did encourage a state of mind that does not exist in Germany. American college students view themselves as consumers at the University; we spend a certain amount of money and expect a certain quality of service. German collegiates, though, are “student-citizens,” von Moltke explained.

For instance, career advising is more or less non-existent in Germany. Students can use government offices for these things. In fact, most services like housing and public transportation for students are provided by the city or state.

“Its job is to serve the public, not to treat its students as clients,” von Moltke said. “For better and for worse, in the U.S., you are a paying client and because of the way American capitalism works, customer service is part of the experience… Of course it kind of commodifies education. It becomes a good to be exchanged between a seller and buyer. Whereas in Germany, the ideal is still it’s a public good so you’re not paying or buying for it, you’re taking advantage of your right to education. But then it isn’t kind of fenced in with all of these consumer bells and whistles.”

That lack-of-consumer model is also reflected in the type of education students can expect. Canning described three types of classes: lectures and small, introductory and advanced seminars.

A first-year student in an introductory seminar on the French Revolution, Canning described, would be expected to already know the chronology of the Revolution, or receive suggestions for background reading. The course would focus on reading primary sources — in French — and discussing them.

Students in lecture courses rarely have performance-based measurements, like quizzes or tests, at the end. Instead, students ask to take an oral exam with a professor if they feel they know the material well enough.

“If you bomb, it’s your own fault and no one cares,” Canning said. “There’s nobody there to hold your hand. It’s up to you. You’re a scholar, you’re at the university because you want to actually learn. Our little ‘holding out the carrot’ just doesn’t happen.”

LSA junior Alexandra Trecha, who is studying in Freiburg this year, noticed the difference in expectations.

“There definitely isn't as much ‘checking in’ and students are expected to be much more responsible and invested in their work here compared to the U.S.,” Trecha said.

At the University, students expect, well, everything from their college experience. The University provides transportation, housing, food, libraries, mental health support, academic and career advising and — perhaps most importantly — a social scene.

In the U.S., the college years are supposed to be “the best time” of your life. Germans see college as a continuation of one’s education, as momentous as moving from tenth to 11th grade. More fanfare surrounds moving away from home.

“It’s not the place you go and get away from your parents for four years and drink and figure out who you are,” Canning said.

Capotescu noted that much soul-searching and deciding what one’s talents are occurs in high school. Indeed, hopeful doctors in Germany attend medical or law school directly after high school rather than dabbling in biology courses for two years before deciding to major in philosophy.

“College is a lot more functional,” Capotescu said. “You go through university to get to a job.”

Identifying with your university is also not so common, and colleges do not market themselves in this way.

“No one’s trying to convince you to come there,” Canning said. “There’s just a lot less prestige and all this associated with higher education.”

Meanwhile, the University shamelessly creates a face for themselves. One video called “Come to Michigan” shows students playing cellos, doing flips in the Law Library in maize-and-blue regalia, treading on the block ‘M’ on the Diag and peering through microscopes.

“Come. Come create and calculate,” a man’s voice in the video says. “An experience unlike any other awaits you here.”

Von Moltke, whose son is a sophomore at the University, said during his son’s college search, the more the college pushed its amenities, the more tuition cost.

“My sense was that the more they’re asking, the more they’re trying to sell you their network.”

But is the experience worth the massive amounts of debt that students graduate with at the end of the year?

“The obvious flaw for the U.S. system is how much our education costs,” Trecha said. “I have never seen a more flabbergasted face than when I told a German how much we have to pay in the U.S. for one semester of college.”

But with those funds come at least a few perks. Canning said Freiburg has two computers for public use.

“It is one of the most renowned and academically exceptional institutions in Germany,” Canning said. “There were two computer terminals in the library for public use. Two computers that you could go to and do your e-mail, so our students were like standing in line.”

When moving to an American college, Capotescu noted the greater amenities. Being able to order any book he needed from the library, printing and other conveniences is nice, he said.

But not being in debt from his undergraduate education is nicer.

“It’s inconvenient to have to wait for books, but it’s not something that creates a major obstruction in your life,” Capotescu said. “But having a $50,000 debt is a pretty big problem.”