Higher Education

How free college tuition in one country exposes unexpected pros and cons

Germany’s recent shift to making higher education free has brought surprises

Claudia Niessler works 20 hours a week at a supermarket to pay her living expenses, in spite of Germany’s policy of providing free tuition.

BERLIN — Claudia Niessler wouldn’t have attended a university that charged tuition, though even without it her living expenses while in college require her to work as many as 20 hours a week at a supermarket.

Stefan Steinbock pipes in that having to pay tuition would discourage people with good grades but low incomes from getting university degrees, and that not having to do so means he can focus on his academics.

But Peter-André Alt contends that being unable to charge tuition means universities are overcrowded and thinly stretched, and that hard-pressed taxpayers are unfairly forced to fill the void, even if they don’t go to college or have kids who do.

Niessler and Steinbock are students at, and Alt the president of, Freie Universität Free University Berlin They embody the surprising ambivalence, unexpected nuances, and general pros and cons of making university tuition free, as has happened in the last few years in Germany and is proposed in the United States by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The university’s name refers not to its cost, but to its origins at the outset of the Cold War, when it was established to be free of ideological influence in the then-divided city. “The fact of the matter is, of course, that any university, if it is a university, is free,” then-President John F. Kennedy pronounced here on the same day in 1963 that he made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. “So one might think that the words ‘Free University’ are redundant. But not in West Berlin.”

Like other universities in Germany, Freie Universität was also free of charge in 1963. In 2006, German universities were allowed to begin imposing tuition. Student protests and a political backlash followed, however, and by 2014 tuition was being gradually eliminated at the public universities that educate the vast majority of German students. Except for small administrative fees — at Freie Universität, €304 per semester, or about $341, most of it for a public transit pass — most German undergraduates now pay no tuition.

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This makes Germany an ideal test case for the proposal first raised by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders — who named it as a model — and that is now a centerpiece of Clinton’s presidential bid.

The verdict? German university enrollment rose by 22 percent as tuition disappeared, the Ministry of Education and Research reports — much faster than in other member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD — while the number of Germans who opt instead for vocational education has declined. The cost to taxpayers of subsidizing higher education went up 37 percent.

The amount earmarked to help students with their living expenses has remained unchanged for years, however, and, even without having to pay tuition, some such as Niessler increasingly have to resort to jobs or loans to cover rent and food, especially if they’re from lower-income families that can’t help.

Unable to charge for tuition, meanwhile, universities contend that they are blocked from an important source of revenue. And economists wonder how long the government will be able to support these costs, especially with a new law looming that will limit the amount of money states, or Länder — which operate the universities — can borrow.

Now, two years after the last few German universities went tuition-free, Germans are almost equally split about the idea, with 44 percent in favor of reimposing tuition and 46 percent wanting to keep things as they are, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

When informed that university graduates earn 40 percent more than those with only vocational educations, the proportion who support bringing back tuition rises to half. And an even higher 60 percent like the idea of requiring students to pay for their tuition after graduating, as a portion of their incomes, in a model similar to those in place in England and Australia. (In separate polls by Public Agenda and the Campaign for Free College Tuition, about two-thirds of Americans said they support making tuition free for lower- and middle-income students; a more recent survey by the foundation New America puts the figure as high as 70 percent, but also found that people think the idea is unaffordable.)

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Analysts raise worries similar to those that have come up in Germany about the Clinton plan, which would leverage state and federal money to make in-state public universities and colleges that account for more than two-thirds of U.S. enrollment tuition-free by 2021 for students from families with incomes of as much as $125,000.

The proposal would increase enrollment at those institutions by from 9 to 22 percent, Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce predicts. It would cost an estimated $350 billion over 10 years, according to the Clinton campaign, which says the money would come from eliminating certain tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans. (Republican nominee Donald Trump has called for a plan under which repayments of student loans would be capped at 12.5 percent of the borrower’s income, and the debt forgiven altogether after 15 years.)

Mandy Gratz, a member of the executive committee of the German students’ union, says free tuition falls short, and that students need help with living expenses to avoid going into debt.

Critics say the biggest burden and the one rising fastest for American students isn’t tuition, but other costs, including room and board, books, supplies, and transportation, as Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of education policy at Temple University, who studies this, argues in a new book, “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.”

In Germany, low-income students can get €650 a month, or about $580, in a combination of grants and loans toward their living expenses. Since almost all students live off campus, this creates the unanticipated reality that even in a country where the universities don’t charge tuition, students graduate with debt.

We don’t want students to go into debt because they want to study,” said Mandy Gratz, a member of the executive committee of the Freier Zusammenschluss von StudentInnenschaften, or FZS, the German students’ union, which has called for grants to be increased and eligibility widened.

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Their accumulating costs of living means 68 percent of German students work, the FZS says, and “students from a lower socioeconomic background try to study faster,” Gratz said over coffee in a café in Berlin’s Mitte district. “They usually also try to choose fields of studies that are more directly linked to the professions,” meaning practical subjects such as marketing and human resources that can get them jobs with earnings high enough to repay their loans, but steer away from longer-term programs in disciplines such as medicine or law, with the result that those are largely populated by the wealthy.

 

Then again, Gregor Eichorn, another student at Freie Universität, said with a shrug, “You’ve got to live somewhere anyway. You’ve got to eat anyway.”

Pausing in a corridor outside Freie Universität’s math and physics library, which looks like an alien spaceship crashed to earth, he said, “I don’t think going to university should be elitist. People should be able to study whatever they want to. If you really want to educate yourself in this country, you’ve got the possibility.”

Gratz herself, she said, is the first in her family to go to college. She started out in college majoring in comparative literature and political science, but, concerned those subjects might not lead to salaries high enough to pay her loans, has switched to pursuing a teaching degree while also working one full- and one part-time job.

Gregor Eichorn, a student at Berlin’s Freie Universität, dismisses demands that the government provide grants for living expenses, on top of keeping tuition free. “You’ve got to live somewhere anyway,” he says. “You’ve got to eat anyway.”

The disproportionate burden of living costs has had an impact in at least one other country where tuition has been jettisoned in 2007 for students under 25: Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament Information Centre says enrollment is up by 17 percent since then. But most low-income students saw no advantage when Scottish universities stopped charging tuition, since they were already exempt from it, research at the University of Edinburgh found. When the shift was underwritten in part with cuts in grants to cover their rent and food, researchers found, the net effect was a transfer of £20 million a year in benefits, or more than $25 million, from lower-income students to their higher-income classmates who could afford to pay tuition but no longer do.

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In Germany, making tuition free hasn’t created any noticeable change in who goes to college one way or the other, said Ludger Woessmann, a professor of economics at the University of Munich and director if the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education. As in other countries, that depends more on whether or not their parents went than what the cost is, Woessmann said.

Three-quarters of children of people who have university degrees in Germany go to college, he said, compared to a quarter of those who don’t. (In all, 57 percent of the equivalent of high school graduates go on to college here, the OECD reports, compared to what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is 69 percent of their American counterparts.)

Peter-André Alt, president of Freie Universität Berlin, says free tuition means German universities have fewer resources with which to teach and do research than their counterparts in other countries.

The Georgetown analysis projects that, under Clinton’s plan, so many people in the United States would apply to go to top public universities that those would become much more selective, shutting out poor and nonwhite students, who would land in already overburdened open-access regional public universities and community colleges with low success rates.

In Germany, the shift to dependence on government funding, combined with the increase in enrollment that resulted from abandoning tuition, has also meant a 10 percent decline in spending per student in the last few years, the OECD reports, to about $16,895, compared to $27,924 in the United States. Starved for funding, German universities are seldom near the top of international rankings.

German undergraduates, Gratz said, are stuck in lecture halls “with hundreds and hundreds of students.” Ph.D. candidates, she said, do much of the instructing. The universities “say they do not have enough money for research. But they do not have enough money for teaching, either.”

She’d get little argument from Alt, the president of Freie Universität, outside of whose office in a renovated art deco former fire insurance company headquarters are still mementoes of that Kennedy visit, including the original notes of JFK’s speech.

“One disadvantage is that we lose one opportunity to enhance our financial support and budget situations,” said Alt, who spends much of his time vying for independent sources of funding such as international grants and corporate gifts. If the university could collect fees, he said, “We could invest much more and we could do much more.”

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Also, Alt said, when most of the costs fall to the government to cover, “The taxpayer is paying for the universities whether or not they’re benefitting. A fee system assigns the cost to the person who is benefitting.” This in a country with the third-highest tax rate in the OECD, of almost 50 percent of income.

Woessmann, the economist, agreed that, “as a general rule, universities in Germany do have much less resources than at least the higher-level universities in the U.S. University presidents in general will always tell you they don’t have enough money, but in general I think they have a point there. If the universities were able to [impose] tuition fees, that would surely in general affect the quality.”

Those arguments have so far largely been eclipsed, however, in a country where — unlike in the United States, where barely one in five college-aged Americans go to the polls — college students vote in huge numbers. “In the end, it was a political issue,” Alt said with a sigh. Candidates “could lose a campaign for charging fees.”

If not politics, then economics could raise the next challenge to the German experiment with free tuition. A provision called, in German, Schuldenbremse, or “debt brake,” will limit how much the Länder can borrow, beginning in 2020, restricting the amount available to cover the cost of college educations.

“We will come into a situation where, just like in any downturn, there will be real problems for states to keep up the funding for the universities, or raise it,” Woessmann said. “And I think by that time we’ll have another discussion about free university tuition.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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