Save abroad

American students dodge debt at German universities

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Diana Figueroa from New York is saving thousands studying and living in Berlin. Source: own

Lucas Mattila is proud of his mother for earning a university degree but not thrilled about her enduring financial burden. “She’s still paying off her college loans,” he says.

The 23-year-old native of Duluth, Minnesota, is studying literature at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. “Money played a big role,” he says, of his decision to pursue a master’s degree in Germany.

He’s not alone. The number of Americans seeking an undergraduate or graduate degree in Germany is steadily increasing. The figure last year was 5,840, up 12 percent from the previous year. Germany is among the top five European countries attracting Americans who want to obtain a degree abroad, especially a master’s, according to the Institute of International Education IIE.

Ask them why and many say it’s a no-brainer: The country offers a high-quality education, a growing number of English-taught programs and, above all, zero tuition fees. That’s especially enticing to Americans facing the horrendous costs of studying and living at home.

“Money played a big role.”

Lucas Mattila, American foreign student

Mr. Mattila’s four-year bachelor’s degree at the partially state-funded University of Minnesota in Minneapolis cost $56,000 (€47,600) in tuition and fees and another $44,000 in living expenses – for a total $100,000. He received scholarships and some other support but still has around $20,000 in college loans to pay back. It could have been worse. Had he gone to the elite Columbia University in New York City, the same four-year degree with tuition, fees and living expenses would have cost him $287,000. Not surprisingly, Americans owe more than $1.48 trillion in student loan debt. Talk about an education bubble.

By comparison, Germany’s 16 states abolished tuition fees in 2014, making public university studies essentially free. Students typically pay no more than €250 (€294) a semester to cover enrollment and other administrative costs. Average annual living costs are €9,600, according to the German Academic Exchange Council DAAD. These vary by city. For instance, the living costs for students in Munich, considered Germany’s most expensive city, are €10,800.

Diana Figueroa ruled out pursuing a master’s degree in journalism in the United States. “I was looking at costs of between $60,000 and $100,000,” she says. “This just wasn’t an option for me.” So she looked abroad, initially at London, where she spent some time as an undergraduate. But the city’s high living costs nixed that dream.” The search for an affordable European city, and one where she could “get by with English for a limited amount of time,” led her to the German capital.

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Room for everyone, debt for no one. Source: DPA

“The cost of living in Berlin is not nearly as expensive as it is in New York City, where I’m from; I live here for one fourth of the price,” says Ms. Figueroa, who is attending a two-year English-language journalism master’s program at the Hochschule für Medien Kommunikation und Wirtschaft. Although she is enrolled at a private university and pays about €8,000 a year in tuition and fees, she calls the program a “bargain,” compared to her US options.

Students from many other countries apparently agree. A recent country ranking by Study.EU puts Germany atop a pack of 30 European study abroad destinations for international students seeking full degrees. It’s the second consecutive year the country has held the number-one spot across a range of criteria, including quality of education, cost, and life and career factors.

“German universities have gone up in the rankings, and that means something to applicants,” says Michael Kinville, an American education consultant who holds a master’s from the University of Freiburg and a PhD from Humboldt University in Berlin.

The total number of international students in Germany in 2017 reached 358,895, surpassing the government’s long-term goal of hosting 350,000 international students by 2020 three years early. Chinese students account for the lion’s share (13.2 percent), followed by Indian students (5.8 percent) and Russians (4.3 percent). Americans currently constitute 2 percent of the total, their numbers rising.

“German universities have gone up in the rankings, and that means something to applicants.”

Michael Kinville, education consultant

One must wonder why Germany is so willing to pick up the tab for educating foreigners, on average about €13,500 a year per student, with the number varying by field and city. One reason, government officials say, is the huge demographic hole the country must fill with skilled workers to keep its robust economy purring. Germany is second only to Japan in the proportion of its population over the age 60. “There is a tough global competition for the brightest minds,” concedes DAAD President Margret Wintermantel. To encourage graduates from outside the EU to stay, the government also offers them an 18-month post-study work visa.

Another reason, says Mr. Kinville, is “soft diplomacy.” Overseas graduates are seen as partners generating goodwill for Germany globally.

But this isn’t to say that all states are happy to pay for their education in full. In 2017, the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg became the first state to re-introduce tuition fees for non-EU students, who must now pay €3,000 per year. North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, is considering a similar move.

Yet for frugal American students, a master’s for even that price is still a bargain.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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