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How US students get a university degree for free in Germany  April 14, 2017 – 04:12 pm
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While the cost of college education in the US has reached record highs, Germany has abandoned tuition fees altogether for German and international students alike. An increasing number of Americans are taking advantage and saving tens of thousands of dollars to get their degrees.

In a kitchen in rural South Carolina one night, Hunter Bliss told his mother he wanted to apply to university in Germany. Amy Hall chuckled, dismissed it, and told him he could go if he got in.

"When he got accepted I burst into tears, " says Amy, a single mother. "I was happy but also scared to let him go that far away from home."

Across the US parents are preparing for their children to leave the nest this summer, but not many send them 4, 800 miles (7, 700km) away - or to a continent that no family member has ever set foot in.

Yet the appeal of a good education, and one that doesn't cost anything, was hard for Hunter and Amy to ignore.

"For him to stay here in the US was going to be very costly, " says Amy. "We would have had to get federal loans and student loans because he has a very fit mind and great goals."

More than 4, 600 US students are fully enrolled at Germany universities, an increase of 20% over three years. At the same time, the total student debt in the US has reached $1.3 trillion (£850 billion).

Each semester, Hunter pays a fee of €111 ($120) to the Technical University of Munich (TUM), one of the most highly regarded universities in Europe, to get his degree in physics.

Included in that fee is a public transportation ticket that enables Hunter to travel freely around Munich.

Health insurance for students in Germany is €80 ($87) a month, much less than what Amy would have had to pay in the US to add him to her plan.

"The healthcare gives her peace of mind, " says Hunter. "Saving money of course is fantastic for her because she can actually afford this without any loans."

To cover rent, mandatory health insurance and other expenses, Hunter's mother sends him between $6, 000-7, 000 each year.

At his nearest school back home, the University of South Carolina, that amount would not have covered the tuition fees. Even with scholarships, that would have totalled about $10, 000 a year. Housing, books and living expenses would make that number much higher.

The simple maths made Hunter's job of convincing his mother easy.

"You have to pay for my college, mom - do you want to pay this much or this much?"

Media captionHow Hunter saved $60, 000 over the course of his four-year degree

'Mind blowing'

The financial advantages of studying in Germany have not been lost on other US students. Katherine Burlingame decided to get her Master's degree at a university in the East German town of Cottbus.

A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Katherine spent less than €500 ($570) a month in Cottbus, which included housing, transportation and healthcare. On top of that she received a monthly scholarship by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Council) of €750 ($815) which more than covered her costs.

"When I found out that just like Germans I'm studying for free, it was sort of mind blowing, " Katherine says.

"I realised how easy the admission process was and how there was no tuition fee. This was a wow moment for me."

In the 2014-2015 academic year, private US universities charged students on average more than $31, 000 for tuition and fees, with many schools charging well over $50, 000. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sarah Lawrence University is most expensive at $65, 480.

Public universities demanded in-state residents to pay more than $9, 000 and out-of-state students paid almost $23, 000, according to College Board.

In Germany, tuition fees of €500-1000 were briefly instituted last decade, but Lower Saxony became the last state to phase them out again in 2014.

Students pay a fee to the university each semester to support the student union and other activities. This so called 'semester fee' rarely exceeds €150 and in many cases includes public transportation tickets.

How much does it cost?

in Euro/month Hunter Katherine Anna
Living in Garching Cottbus Freiburg
Rent 280 200 360
Health insurance 80
Semester fee* 20 35
Groceries 140 100 150
Misc 30 76
TOTAL 620 445 686
*includes transportation

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

When Katherine came to Germany in 2012 she spoke two words of German: 'hallo' and 'danke'. She arrived in an East German town which had, since the 1950s, taught the majority of its residents Russian rather than English.

"At first I was just doing hand gestures and a lot of people had compassion because they saw that I was trying and that I cared."

She did not need German, however, in her Master's programme, which was filled with students from 50 different countries but taught entirely in English. In fact, German universities have drastically increased all-English classes to more than 1, 150 programmes across many fields.

Image copyright Alison Trowsdale
  • 29% Languages, Cultural Studies
  • 27% Law, Social Sciences
  • 12% Engineering
  • 10% Math, Natural Sciences

In 1999, European Union members signed the Bologna Accords, which called for uniform university degrees, and established a Bachelor/Master system across Europe. With hundreds of thousands of students from Portugal to Sweden freely travelling abroad, studying and getting degrees in other countries, English became the common language.

At Hunter's university, the Technical University in Munich, 20% of students are non-German. The University president is keen to have every single graduate programme offered in English, and only in English, by the year 2020.

"You can feel sad and think it's a pity that we are losing our own mothers' tongue in the technical disciplines, but that's the development in the world, " says Wolfgang Herrmann.

He acknowledges that people wanting to study philosophy and other cultural sciences would still have to be taught in German.

"But in the technical disciplines you could say the world is easier."

Still, to thrive in daily German life, students and experts alike told the BBC that German language skills are crucial.

"If you go to a pub or supermarket and you don't understand what everyone is saying in the long run you don't feel comfortable, " says Sebastian Fohrbeck, Director of Scholarships at DAAD.

Most universities offer subsidised language programmes, and in some cases a certificate proving the applicant's German skills is required to apply to certain courses or scholarships.

Media captionWhat you need to know about studying for free in Germany

What's in it for Germany?

One student in Berlin costs the country, on average, €13, 300 ($14, 600) a year. That number varies according to the field of study. With no tuition fees that expense is shouldered by the individual states, and ultimately the German taxpayer.


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