Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on Higher Education: Germany vs. the US**

**By request, I've edited the post

While I’m over the fact that Germans pay somewhere between 0- 500 Euros a semester to attend university (depending on which state they are attending school), what I want to know, is what are Americans paying so much for? Are we really getting that much better of an education? Or are we paying for status?

America believes in the ideal that education is a universal right, yet we also tend to promote, unconsciously that debt is too. We say everyone is allowed to have an education, but we all have to be willing to pay (and quite a bit) for it. Where as in Germany, its not so. They don’t allow everyone to get a university degree, only the top students are and before you all start an uproarious demonstration about equality and education for all, the fact that if one meets the state’s requirements to enter a university in Germany, I believe education is a lot more accessible than the American university system which basically lets everyone in, but only on the condition one can (and will for many years) pay for it . While I understand the controversy that goes along with this due to the cyclical disadvantages it puts children of former Hauptschule students in (they rarely advance to higher education, hence following the footsteps of their parents)—however this is not the issue I want to address. We’ll save the Hauptschule debate for another day.

If you qualify for Financial Aid here in Germany, students can borrow a maximum of 10,000 Euros, interest free, from the government, half of which they never have to pay back. That’s right folks, no Sallie Mae, demanding huge chunks of recently graduated, barely employed young people’s paychecks. In addition, the majority of German students tend to focus solely on studying when they study, whereas its not uncommon for most American college students to be juggling one or two jobs in addition to school work in order to pay the $5,000+ (if you’re lucky) tuition bill each semester.

In addition to all that money we’re paying, many of us graduating with a degree in Humanities or Liberal Arts are leaving school with an atrocious amount of debt and yet very little "employable skills" in terms of the expectations of employers. If you really want to pursue professionalisation in a specialized field within the US system, you still need to apply for internships (which usually pays nothing, unlike the Germans who pay a minimum of 500 Euros a month for a required internships) or you have to continue your education doing a Master’s degree, which again prolongs the amount of time and the size of debt you owe upon graduation.

I recently applied for a Masters Program in Germany--whether I will go or not, isn't the issue, but I just want to express to Americans what a difference in cost we're talking about here. The tuition of the entire degree program I applied for, costs less than one semester of my undergrad degree. That’s right kids, for about 2,000 Euros, a university is willing to allow me to study for a MA. The average price for a Masters degree in the States at the moment is around $25,000, even higher if it’s a professional degree. Why the difference in price tag? Can we really say that the US system is so much better, or the quality of education is that much higher? I’m not so sure.

One thing I do appreciate about the US system however, is its flexibility. If I study Mathematics for example, that doesn't mean that I can only ever work in a field closely related to what I studied. In Germany, its very difficult (some say impossible) to get work outside of what you specialized in or studied. So in this respect, I value the American system--however, that still doesn't mean the price of education should cripple or burden young adults through their twenties and into their thirties.

Anyone care to shed some light or cast some criticism or comments my way?

What are we paying for?


  1. Education in the US is not looked on in Europe in a good light. US citizens seem to pay a lot for a worthless piece of paper. If everyone can go to University and pass a degree simply by paying for it how can the degree be worth anything, one might as well just pass a list of books one has read to an employer it's worth about as much. To get into University in Europe you have to meet certain standards, you have to be above average intelligence and have passed a number of previous exams and received good enough scores to get into University. A student can also fail a degree in most Universities in Europe, which means successfully getting a degree holds a certain cachet.. If a degree can't be failed surely the credibility of the whole institution is brought into question.

  2. Actually not everyone can get into a university in the US. You still have to have a certain GPA from high school and make a certain SAT score, etc. Grad schools have much stiffer requirements. Quite a few people flunk out of college also due to partying, not studying, etc. so work is required. So no one should say EVERYONE can go to college in the US. There are requirement and the more elite the college, the higher the requirements.

    Is the tuition/finansial aid system out of control - absolutely! I for one am in debt for life from student loans. The reasoning behind the expense is so complex its akin to trying to explain our healthcare system problems. Some key reasons are German universities are subsidized by the state, and there may be caps on professor salaries or other things (I don't know the facts).

    However, (being married to a German & knowing the inflexibility of education & career choice in Germany), if given the chance to choose between a US education or a German one, I would choose the US. I can market myself in many different ways in the US according to my degrees & work skills, & if I want to learn something totally different - I can! Now that I have to move to Germany to be with my husband, I'm facing a situation where my skills & fact I've tried many different jobs will not be respected.

  3. I can't say too much about the subject other than what I've heard several Germans is that it's much easier to "get ahead" here than it was in Germany. Not that they were doing horrible there. Just that they where "getting ahead" at a much slower pace. That being said, The majority of millionaires in the US don't have a degree. It's kind of discouraging that many young Americans are sold the idea that to get anywhere in life, one has to have a college degree (my 19 year old brother for example)or, that a piece of paper will make them rich. So well off in fact, that being $1,000's in debt will all be worth it in the end).

  4. Honestly, as an expat living in Germany, when possible I'd take the chance on an American overpriced degree that could prove invalid in a global market over the rigid, restrictive, dehumanizing, allbeit affordable educational system that one, surely from birth on, encounters here. People aren't meant to, from very early, have their aptitudes presumed, have their possibilities checked or to be steered towards specific career paths like cattle. Yuk and superyuk.

  5. Some interesting points. Thanks guys...