This Country Just Abolished College Tuition Fees (And the U.S. Could Learn From It)


Florida, California... Germany? It might not the warmest place year-round for prospective college students to consider, but it's arguably the most affordable. 

Following a vote by the state of Lower Saxony last month, university tuition fees throughout the country have been scrapped. Listen up, America: Higher education is now free for everyone in Germany, including international students.

How did this happen? The move is eight years in the making. The German Constitutional Court ruled in 2006 that universities could charge for tuition, since the fees didn't conflict with its promise of providing universal education. Even though the fees were extremely low compared to ours (roughly $1,200 a year), students were peeved, so states gradually dropped the fees. 

Dorothee Stapelfeldt, a government official in Hamburg, where tuition fees were eliminated two years ago, has the right attitude about tuition, calling it "socially unjust."

"They particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies," she said. "It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high-quality standard free of charge in Germany."

While free or inexpensive tuition is most common in parts of Europe, students in the United Kingdom feel the same burden as Americans in paying off exorbitant fees.


What the U.S. can learn: Stateside, the College Board reports that tuition for a moderate, in-state public college costs about $22,826. Tuition is even higher at private colleges, averaging $45,000 a year. Those fees, not to mention room, board and books, cause led to a lot of student debt.

Rising college costs tower over the growth of the median family income, and they continue to grow at a staggering pace:


It's estimated that students are collectively saddled with $1 trillion in debt, which will take years and years to pay off. Student loan debt grew in lockstep with household debt until 2004. That's when it veered off and hasn't come down since:

What's more is that a bill in Congress which would have let students refinance their loans with lower interest rates (with the rich picking up the slack) was killed by Republicans this summer. We're headed in the opposite direction of Germany's smart move, while college education slips further out of reach as a widely obtainable goal.

Don't forgo all hope of affording college; some states are taking the right steps. For example, Tennessee is starting a program called "Tennessee Promise," offering two years of free tuition to high school grads who choose community colleges or tech schools. Oregon and Mississippi are considering similar ideas.

What about America as a whole? ThinkProgress crunched the numbers and came up with this idea:

The government spends around $69 billion subsidizing college education and another $107.4 billion on student loans. Tuition at all public universities comes to much less than that, around $62.6 billion in 2012. By restructuring the education budget, the cost of attending public universities could easily be brought down to zero. 

Of course, it's not just as simple as taking money from X and moving it to Y, but the fact remains: U.S. higher education is heading in the wrong direction and with the wrong priorities. Additionally, as more jobs require a bachelor's degree or some equivalent, young Americans will continue taking on crushing college loans, not out of choice but necessity. Until more Americans and American lawmakers also view tuition as "socially unjust," it seems our mountains of burdensome student debt will only rise. 

While we're waiting for that scenario to play out, though, there's always Germany.