Do you want to go to college, but you simply cannot afford it and you do not qualify for scholarships? Here is an interesting idea: move to Germany. American citizens can get a free college education there.
The German Academic Exchange Service (GARS) national report notes that approximately 4,300 Americans were enrolled as students in German universities in 2014. That number does not count American citizens who were already living and/or working in Germany while attending school. It is even possible to qualify for scholarships through GARS that cover some of your living expenses. Perks are often included such as public transportation passes.
Given that the German educational system is highly regarded, it is surprising that more Americans do not try to take advantage of the offers. But what is in it for Germany? Why would Germans pay for foreign students to study at their educational institutions?
Like many countries, Germany is suffering from shortage of workers with various skills to go along with an aging population. While Germany is currently absorbing many refugees, their skill sets do not necessarily match Germany's needs — making it even more important to attract skilled workers. Germany considers affordable education as an investment, hoping that a significant number of transfer students will choose to stay and find jobs there.
Germany also has a deep cultural opposition to fees for higher education. In 2005, a court ruling allowed the state governments to begin charging students to raise revenue, but the program created such a huge public backlash that it was eventually abandoned.
German taxpayers foot the bill for higher education, much as Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed within the US. Understandably, Germany's tax rates are considerably higher than in the US. The average tax and Social Security (or equivalent) contribution is 39.5% in Germany, second to only Belgium's 42.3% among OECD nations. In the US, that number is 24.8%, putting us in a tie with Poland for the third lowest rate.
The US is unlikely to follow in Germany's footsteps for several reasons — for one, it is highly unlikely that Bernie Sanders will be elected President, and even if he were, pushing tuition-free college through a hostile Congress is just not feasible. One could argue that a cornerstone of America is aversion to taxes, and America has the deeply ingrained system of scholarships and grants to defray costs to equalize opportunity for poorer students. (One could also argue that the system has gone awry over time, but that is another story).
Costs are another issue. German institutions have fewer frills and amenities than American Universities (not to mention a lack of multi-million dollar athletic programs that arguably take over university identities in the public eye). The Wall Street Journal puts the cost of Sanders' college affordability plan at $750 billion over a ten-year period — a pretty significant tax burden, but one that could possibly be bridged with tax rates similar to Germany's.
The concept of college is different within the US as well. In Europe, colleges are not expected to be for everyone, and were not designed hundreds of years ago with such a goal in mind. They were focused on educating the brightest. The US started in a similar fashion, but has evolved to where a college education is now considered a minimum for significant employment.
Should the US follow in Germany's footsteps, it would put the large number of private colleges at a major disadvantage. Many of the elite universities in the American system are private, whereas in Germany, very few universities are private. It would be difficult to find a system that accommodates free tuition within the US that does not set up a tier system between private and public universities. That may not necessarily be bad, but it goes against America's general premise of equal opportunity.
In short, the main reasons that parents and students pay for college here while taxpayers pay in Germany are: cultural heritage, aversion to taxes, disproportionate costs, and fundamental disagreement about the role of colleges. That is a tough list for any country to overcome.