Free University Tuition: A Cautionary Note from Germany

Some American presidential candidates have endorsed free tuition for American public universities. It's an understandable demand. I attended private and public American universities and had the eye-watering student loans to prove it. However, my experience teaching at German universities for over a decade introduced me to some of the tuition-free model's drawbacks, many of which may not be obvious to outsiders. Drastically simplified, the German model is as follows: in their early teen years, the brightest German students are sent to the most prestigious form of German high school, the Gymnasium. Currently, over 50 percent of German students earn this privilege (this number has jumped in the last 30 years, prompting charges of grade inflation). Gymnasium graduates with reasonable grades are guaranteed a place in a German university; there is no entrance exam. 95 percent of German students attend public universities, where they are charged fees, but not formal tuition. All professors at public universities are civil servants. Needy students can apply for a modest stipend. After graduation, students must pay back one-half of the ...

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