Why A Shocking Number of U.S. Students are Going to College in Germany

June 5th 2015

Sarah Gray

More American students are seeking higher education outside of the U.S. -- specifically by going to college in Germany. A report from the BBC found that there has been a 20 percent increase in American students "fully enrolled" at German universities. In 2013, there were 4,654 U.S. students studying at German universities, 61 percent of them were pursuing a Master's degree.

The reason behind this influx of students attending German schools? The high cost of education in the United States. With the end of tuition fees in Lower Saxony, a German state, in 2014, the country officially had tuition-free universities.

How much does it cost for an American student to study in Germany versus the U.S.?

For me, a Millennial dragging around student debt from graduate school, the numbers were shocking (and instantly regret-provoking). The BBC spoke to three American students, both undergraduate and graduate students. All three paid under $800 per month for rent, mandatory health insurance, and a small semester fee that includes transportation costs, groceries, and miscellaneous expenses. (A breakdown can be found here.) In terms of school-related fees -- which cover public transportation, student union funds, along with other activities -- one undergraduate student, Hunter Bliss from South Carolina, pays $120 per semester.

In Hunter Bliss' native South Carolina, he would have paid $10,000 for the entire year at a public school.

According to figures from College Board, American in-state tuition at a four-year, public school was $9,139 for the 2014 - 2015 school year -- up from $8,885 during the previous school year. For out-of-state tuition at a four-year, public school, students and families paid on average $22,958 per year. The average cost was highest for private institutions, where one year of tuition cost $31,231. These figures do not account for room and board. With room and board factored in, even the cheapest form of four-year education -- in-state tuition at a public school -- doubles to $18,943.

Germany isn't the only country to offer such benefits -- Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Mexico, and Brazil all offer cheap, if not free, tuition. Earlier this year, Chile announced it would implement free tuition by March of 2016.

Downsides to moving to Germany?

Although programs are often offered in English, especially in technical fields, students may feel lost if they don't learn German. (The upside is that it forces American students to master a foreign language.) It can also be difficult to be an ocean away from family and in a foreign country.

How does Germany afford free tuition?

ATTN: looked into how Germany can afford free education for all of its citizens-- and the over 25,000-plus foreign students who study there. In March, ATTN: spoke to Mark Huelsman from the New York-based think-tank Demos.

"Germany, and many other European countries, view higher education as more of a public than a private benefit," Huelsman told ATTN:. "They can afford this for a couple reasons. First, they simply agree to pay higher taxes. Second, Germany has a lower percentage of students go on to college than we have here in the U.S. Here, particularly at public schools, college costs have risen as a response to lower levels of public support from states and increasing numbers of students going to school."

Depending on the field of study, Germany as a country pays around $14,600 per student -- including international students -- which ultimately comes from the taxpayers.

There is a rationale for paying over $360 million on foreign students: It's a long-term investment. Many foreign students decide to stay in Germany and start companies there. Another upside is bringing more young people to Germany, which has an aging population.

"It's not unattractive for us when knowledge and know-how come to us from other countries and result in jobs when these students have a business idea and stay in Berlin to create their start-up," said Steffen Krach, Berlin's Secretary of Science.

And according to a spokesperson from German Academic Exchange Council (DAAD), this investment pays off. Half (50 percent) of foreign students stay in Germany after they graduate, and to make back what Germany spent on their education, the country only needs 40 percent of them to stay and pay taxes for five years, the BBC reports.

Other upsides include the exchange of ideas with students from less affluent countries who can afford to study in Germany due to its low tuition.

The big question: Is this sustainable for Germany?

With so many foreign students, the big question is: can Germany sustain this model of free education? Dr. Wolfgang Herrmann from the Technical University of Munich, where Hunter Bliss studies, told the BBC that he thought eventually Germany would have to implement tuition for foreign students to remain competitive.

The fear expressed by Steffen Krach, Berlin's Secretary of Science, is that fees for international students would limit access for students coming from less well-off families.

Would the U.S. ever implement free tuition?

Though President Obama has called for tuition-free community college, a large barrier to implementing free higher education in the United States is philosophical. The United States does not see higher education as a public good, but rather as a privilege. And at the federal level, there is unlikely to be a sweeping proclamation of free tuition. States, however, Huelsman from Demos pointed out, may institute policies to make college more affordable.

School is getting less and less affordable for the average student, fees continue to rise, and in some states, rather than making education more affordable, higher education budgets continue to be slashed, such as in Louisiana. Federal programs targeted at helping lower-income students attend college are also constantly under attack -- including in the current GOP budget proposal in Congress.

As of June 2013, there was $1.2 trillion in cumulative student debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"At the federal level, policymakers have been primarily focused on how to reduce current debt or help struggling borrowers with monthly payments by enrolling more borrowers in income-based repayment plans," Huelsman told ATTN:. "Others have been focused on the inadequacy of grant aid in meeting the needs of students, but there has yet to be a push to fully abolish tuition and fees or take much autonomy away from the states and institutions who make those decisions."