Americans, want a free college education? Move to Germany

Carefree, maybe even debt free.
Carefree, maybe even debt free.
Image: AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach
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US senator and democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed what many consider a highly unrealistic, if not radical, plan: Make college free for all Americans.

But maybe it’s not that radical an idea. In fact, there’s one place that already offers all Americans free collegeGermany. And Americans are finding their way there. According to the German Academic Exchange Service, American enrollment in German universities is increasing.

In 2014, there were about 4,300 American students enrolled in German universities, according to the German Academic Exchange Service national report (pdf), a number which excludes Americans that were already living and attending school there. American students can even qualify for scholarships to cover much of the cost of living, as NPR notes.

All public universities in Germany are free, besides enrollment fees that are a few hundred dollars at most, says Peter Kerrigan, deputy director of the New York bureau of the German Academic Exchange Service. And almost all students attend public universities (link in German).

Americans aren’t alone in taking advantage of free tuition in Germany. There are 2.3 million students in Germany, and about 300,000 foreign students. (They’re either in the country just for university, or attending college after spending a number of years in Germany.) Here are the countries that send the most students just for college:

Germany is not the only country where Americans can get a free ride, but it is one of the most popular. In 2012, the last available year of data from the Institute for International Education, 8.7% of the American students pursuing degrees abroad were doing so in Germany.

The majority of those students—70%—were pursuing master’s degrees. The country has increased the number of English language programs as part of the Bologna Process, an attempt to standardize degrees across countries.

Jonathan Isbell, 37, recently completed a master’s degree in renewable energy management from the University of Freyburg for free.

“My program was 27 people from 20 different countries all over the world,” Isbell tells Quartz. He paid about €180 ($202) per semester for activities fees at the university. He also had to cover room and board, which he says was less expensive than living in Rhode Island, where he was previously.

Germany has been able to maintain its free education for a few reasons. German taxes are high compared to other OECD countries, for one thing, and German universities keep costs low with no-frills campuses. Germans, unlike Americans, overwhelmingly think of higher education as a governmental obligation that should be free, Kerrigan tells Quartz. When some states tried to introduce fees, they failed.