The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders and other Democrats are embracing free college. Europe shows it can be done, but there’s a cost.

Architecture students at the Technical University of Munich in 2018. Free college in Germany offers a model for U.S. politicians. (Joerg Koch/Getty Images)

AACHEN, Germany — Alexandra Decker is close to earning her engineering degree at a top German university. She’s had a good run. She’s finishing a complicated series of experiments in a sleek new lab. She spent a languid semester abroad in Portugal. And she — like hundreds of thousands of other college students in Europe — will graduate without having spent a cent on tuition or needing to borrow at all.

It’s the sort of experience that has inspired Democrats battling for the 2020 U.S. presidential nomination.

This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed wiping away all $1.6 trillion of student debt in the United States, part of a broader plan to make public colleges and universities free. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), meanwhile, has called for canceling up to $50,000 of individuals’ student loan debts. And almost every candidate supports some version of free four-year college.

The topic will feature prominently in the Democratic debates. European archetypes may come up, too.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, announced legislation June 24 to eliminate all $1.6 trillion of student debt held in the U.S. (Video: Reuters)

“In Germany, college tuition is free. In America, it’s increasingly unaffordable,” Sanders wrote on Facebook last week. “Which country do you think has a competitive advantage?” He has often said he admires Europe’s investment because it reflects a belief that educated individuals are a benefit to society.

Sanders in The Washington Post: Make college free for all

But European educators warn that while their systems show what is possible when countries decide to treat higher education as a public good, there are trade-offs involved.

Most European nations offer free or bargain-basement college. Some countries send cash to students to cover food and housing: Denmark pays undergraduates $1,017 a month. Others, such as France, charge an annual fee ($195) that is less than what many U.S. schools charge in a week.

Some German universities — nearly all of which are public — experimented with tuition fees a few years ago. But after a firestorm of student protest, the last German state to charge fees did away with them in 2014. The fee that caused such sticker shock? It was 500 euros per semester, about $565.

By contrast, U.S. universities are the most expensive in the world. Public institutions charged $8,200 per year, on average, and private schools charged $21,200, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). And the average U.S. bachelor’s-degree student graduated this spring almost $30,000 in the hole.

The debt leads to lasting consequences. It has forced many American millennials to delay buying homes and to live with their parents long past graduation. And once they do get married and start families, they quickly need to start scrimping to fund their own children’s college expenses.

European students stare with astonishment at the burden their American peers take on.

“Education should be paid for by the whole society,” said Decker, 23.

But there is little magic to how European countries keep costs down for their students: Even though most impose far higher income taxes than the United States does, they still spend less money on education.

Germany is often singled out for focus by U.S. policymakers. Its economy drives Europe. Its unemployment rates are low. And it manages to power a tuition-free university system without breaking the bank.

Some of the cost savings comes from skimping on the pricey lures U.S. colleges often use to try to attract students. Decker’s university, RWTH Aachen, has no grand athletic center. Ask its students about sports and they might mention intramural Ultimate Frisbee. Professors’ salaries cannot compete with those at top American universities, although they may carry double the teaching load, making it difficult to hire U.S. stars. Its dormitories are modest brick affairs, and many students live off-campus, something they say can diminish the sense of community. Some lecture halls are dingy and don’t seem to have been updated much since the 1950s, when they were built from Germany’s post-World War II rubble. Lectures sometimes top 1,000 students.

“Usually professors don’t even have time for their doctoral students,” Decker said.

The same straitened approach is evident across German campuses. Critics blame it for Germany’s perennially lackluster showing in international university rankings: Just three German universities placed in the top 100 world institutions in rankings compiled by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British education consultancy. (RWTH Aachen ranked at 144.)

That means German schools are decent but not fantastic. 

“We are not playing in the top league. We are not at the peak,” said Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, his country’s main higher-
education association. “The top German universities are not the Ivies. But the system works broadly as a cost-covering system.”

In Germany, public funds covered $14,092 per student in 2015, the latest year for which the OECD has compiled numbers. In the United States, public funds covered $10,563 per student. But once private money was taken into account, U.S. university spending was far higher: $30,003 per student, compared with $17,036 in Germany.

“You have huge gyms and a very comfortable student life on campus. But at the end of the day, you have to pay for that,” said Ulrich Rüdiger, the rector — the German equivalent of a university president — of RWTH Aachen. “We are really focused on teaching and research. Having a top soccer team, this is not the main task we have. We don’t care.”

When German universities experimented with fees, the money often went to shrink class sizes and improve teaching quality. 

“The best German universities look a lot like the University of Colorado. It’s not going to be like the top privates. It’s not even going to be like the top publics,” said Alex Usher, a Canadian education consultant who has studied how countries fund their university systems. “They’re perfectly good schools. They churn out good graduates. They’re not as focused on creating an elite. And in many ways that’s what the top systems in the United States are trying to do.”

In the United States, advocates of free college often play up its potential to reduce inequality of opportunity. But Germany’s schools do not actually reach a greater share of the population — 31 percent of Germans ages 25 to 34 have a college degree, compared with 48 percent in the United States. And a smaller portion of students in Germany are the first in their families to attend college. Thirty-two percent of U.S. graduates between the ages of 20 and 29 did not have a parent with higher education, while in Germany it was 29 percent, according to OECD figures.

That may be partly attributed to Germany’s robust apprenticeship system, which enables people to get decent-paying jobs without a college degree. But critics within Germany say free tuition cannot make up for high schools that fail to prepare disadvantaged populations and steer them away from the best education. Additionally, although Germany’s poorest students can receive a mixture of state-sponsored loans and grants to cover living expenses, critics say it is not enough.

The German system sets up an awkward situation: The taxes of people who forgo college help pay for the education of those who attend. (Germany’s progressive tax rates mean that the highest earners pay significantly more than those at the lower end of the spectrum. The top tax bracket — for people who make $290,000 a year or more — is 45 percent.)

The concern that free college does not sufficiently target those in need is among the reasons previous Democratic candidates have withheld the promise. 

“I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids, I do,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said at Wednesday night’s debate. Instead, she said she favors making community college free, expanding grants for low-income students and making it easier for students to pay off their loans.

Sanders has said he would pay for his more sweeping plan with a new tax on financial transactions.

“This is truly a revolutionary proposal,” Sanders said Monday as he unveiled his plan to pay off the student loans of all Americans and then use federal funding to encourage states to make public colleges and universities free.

Some German analysts say a middle ground might be desirable.

The United States and Germany “are looking at it from exactly the opposite side of the problem. And probably the optimum is somewhere in between,” said Ludger Woessmann, director of the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education in Munich. 

“Making higher education free is something that’s strongly regressive,” Woessmann said. “It’s something that strongly moves money from poorer to richer families. It makes sense to talk about who should pay for it.”

For German students — who strongly support free tuition — a low-cost education is a hallmark of a country that values the contributions educated citizens can make.

High school “is free. Why wouldn’t university be free?” said Luisa Krückeberg, 25, a physics student at RWTH Aachen who just finished her master’s thesis.

Neither of Krückeberg’s parents has a college degree, but they chipped in to help her pay for her living expenses while in school and avoid going into debt, she said. The monthly costs of eating and renting an apartment in Aachen can range from about $900 to $1,100, students said. In bigger cities, such as Munich, the price tag is bigger.

Krückeberg said she appreciated the freedom a tuition-free education can provide.

“My bachelor’s studies were really hard, and I thought sometimes about switching or going to vocational training,” she said. In the end, she took some classes outside her major but decided to recommit.

“If I knew I would have had to pay $40,000 for those classes, I wouldn’t have been able to explore a bit,” she said.

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