Learning Curve

American students head to Germany for free college

Marketplace Contributor Apr 1, 2015
Learning Curve

American students head to Germany for free college

Marketplace Contributor Apr 1, 2015

Despite the high cost of college in this country, most American students will choose to go to school here. But a growing number of students are getting their degrees in other countries, like Germany, where taxpayers pick up the tab. WGBH’s On Campus team recently traveled to Cologne to explore this higher education defection, and the implications for the United States.

At a cafe just around the corner from the University of Cologne, students sink into big armchairs and sip lattes.

This is Rachael Smith’s favorite place to spend down time between classes. The 26-year-old is working on her master’s degree and has been living in Germany for almost two years.

Rachel Smith is one of about 100 Americans currently studying at the University of Cologne in Germany. (Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH)

“I love it here. I really like the city. I love the culture,” she says. “Cologne is a very open city, a very friendly city. I definitely get the vibe that Germans appreciate a foreign presence in the city.”

Smith is one of almost 100 Americans studying at the University of Cologne. And, like everyone else, she’s doing it tuition-free.

“I wouldn’t have studied my master’s in the United States — just the cost was not an option,” Smith says. “I have enough debt from studying my undergrad, so I didn’t want to pile that on. But when I found this program, I realized it could be an actual option.”

Those Americans are part of a growing number of students choosing to get their degrees in other countries, like Germany, where it’s always been free. Today more than 150,000 international students are getting a degree in Germany, including more than 4,000 Americans. That’s double what it was just five years ago. While the amount of students choosing that path is not enough to worry American schools, it has given German universities a boost.

In Siegen

German universities are marketing heavily overseas. They highlight their strengths in research, and building connections with professors at other schools. “Free” is a great selling point, but it’s just the start.

The University of Siegen is in a small regional capital east of Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH)

Jay Malone from Columbus, Ohio, is now living in Germany. He’s found a way to capitalize on Germany’s efforts to recruit internationally.

“Cost is what gets people in the door. Cost is what initially interests people,” Malone says. “A person who was only interested in cost, that person is very unlikely to come over. You need to have other interests, other things that are driving you.”

Malone got his master’s degree in Germany, and now he’s running Eight Hours and Change, a niche college-consulting firm. Recently, he’s gotten a lot of emails from Americans wanting his help to study in Germany.

Malone recently went on a scouting mission to the University of Siegen, one of the places he’ll take a group of American high school students visiting in June.

Siegen is a smaller regional capital, nestled in the hills east of Cologne and the Rhineland. A light dusting of snow covers the pointed roofs and slate-tiled cottages of the city’s old town.

Delisha Duran is an American from Chattanooga, Tennessee. She’s studying at the University of Siegen. While she has enjoyed the international experience, she says there are downsides to living in this German “fairy tale.”

“I miss having a gym five minutes away,” Duran says. “I miss having a cafeteria that will give me endless food for the whole day.”

Delisha Duran is an American from Chattanooga, Tennessee, studying at the University of Siegen. (Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH)

And, Duran adds, even for the most adventurous students, living abroad is a challenge.

“One of the things you have to consider is that you’re going to cry, a lot,” she says. “You’re going to miss home a ton.”

If students still think they’re up to the challenge, they’ll have to get through the German admissions process, which is vastly different than it is in the United States, says Malone.

“It’s much more transparent, and it is entirely academic based,” he says.

There are no recommendations or extensive resumes. Instead, students need the same test scores that would get them into a solid U.S. state school.

There’s also the language barrier. But, Germany is offering more and more programs in English at both the master’s and bachelor’s level. The government will even pay for German language classes. Germany wants these international students here, even though their taxpayers foot the bill.

“Germany is not a country that’s growing,” Malone says. “Its population is not growing. They need people, they need immigrants. They want to be a migration country.”

Competition and cooperation

Think about it this way: it’s a global game of collecting talent. All of these students are the trading cards, and the collectors are countries. If a country collects more talent, they’ll have an influx of new ideas, new businesses and a better economy.

“If you look at Germany, the only resource we do have are human resources, actually,” says Dorothea Rueland, secretary general of the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD. The DAAD is in charge of Germany’s push to attract more international students.

A map of full-time degree options at German universities that are taught in English. Information from the German Rectors Conference.

“We depend on innovation, on inventions — and where do they come from? From institutions of higher education or from research institutions,” Rueland says.

According to the DAAD, half of foreign students getting a degree in Germany will stay. That’s not just in the short term either — 40 percent of students plan on remaining for at least 10 years. In the U.S., only 12 percent of international students opt to stay for even one year.

When asked whether Germany is competing with American universities for the same talent, Rueland doesn’t hesitate.

“We are part of this world and we cannot neglect these trends going on. So of course, we are competitors,” she says.

But Rueland is also quick to point out competing is only part of the picture. The other part is cooperation.

“If you look at the global challenges everybody’s talking about, questions of climate change, energy, water, high-tech … this cannot be solved by one institution or one country,” Rueland says. “So you have to have big international networks. We all know this. This is actually the mission we have.”

Some American universities have said they share that mission of cooperation — and they don’t see Germany as competition, yet.

A mobile degree

Back in Cologne, a group of Americans who are now part of that international network try to work out whether they see themselves working in Germany or the U.S. after graduation.

“I want to see what the workforce is like [in Germany], like a full-time job and see if I enjoy it,” says Glen Bornhoft, a recent graduate from the University of Cologne. “Because so far I really enjoy studying here and meeting all the different types of people that I’ve met.”

Andrew Kinder, who is studying business administration, agrees.

“I think that would be the more realistic way to have it pay off, to start the next phase of my career here in Germany, and hope with an international corporation, or an American corporation, and at some point maybe move back to the States,” he says.

But Natasha Turner, who is studying for her master’s in North American studies, isn’t as sure.

American Natasha Turner is completing her master’s degree at the University of Cologne. (Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH)

“I don’t know,” she says. “I know employers on both sides of the ocean will look at my CV and say ‘Oh, oh that looks good.’ I’m employable anywhere.”

Employers agree. With her German degree, Natasha is mobile. So if she doesn’t want to come back to the States, she doesn’t have to. America has enough talent, and enough students, at least for now.

This is part two in a series from WGBH that examines higher education in Germany, and compares it to the challenges we face here in the U.S. Click here for part one.

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