Be Smart, Move to Germany (not in that order)

Erfurt University German Flag - stkIs it just me, or is Germany possibly the greatest country in the world today…?

Germany is considered the 5th best place to be young in the world (3rd in Europe), and with 64% of the population speaking English, it’s also one of the best places for foreigners of any age to visit (…especially if they speak English). It has the world’s 4th largest economy (after US, China, and Japan) and an impressively low unemployment rate. It’s no wonder that it was rated as the most positively viewed country in the world in 2013 by the BCC. But the real story that motivated me to blog about this is the news about something dear to my heart – higher education. Namely, Germany has made all of its university education completely free.

Say What?

Considering that Germany has the third-most institutions among the world’s best universities (just behind the US & UK), this is a serious and astonishing development. In fact, after having investigated many of the available courses myself, I can say that there are some very interesting options for students of any nations. In English, that is. I have nothing to say about German courses because, frankly, I can’t read German.

Too good to be true? Absolutely not. English is already the main language taught in many German universities, and the amount of English-only schools is growing. Even the best institutions in the country offer programs for international students in English. Of course, it depends on what you would like to learn. Having looked through the catalog of bachelor’s degrees for business and PhDs for psychology offered entirely in English, it’s easy to see (especially for the bachelor’s degrees, which have lots of information available) that the quality of these programs look excellent. Even I have begun considering studying in Germany for graduate school because of this news. From care2:

Germany has never been known for having high tuition costs, but last week it officially voted to make college education free for everyone. According to German senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt, the decision was made because they felt paying anything for tuition was “unjust” and discouraged students with difficult economic circumstances from receiving a high level of education.

Though tuition was already incredibly low by American standards – sitting at about $600 for a year – this decision completely does away with it: even for international students.

This move isn’t unprecedented for Germany. Higher education was free in the past, but in 2006 institutions across the country began charging.

Public outcry caused most schools to phase out their tuition policies rapidly. Last week, Lower Saxony was the final state to formally end all of theirs, driving the proverbial nail into the coffin for tuition fees.

American students, who typically graduate university with about $29,000 of student debt, could now be eyeing Germany as a place to continue their studies. Of course, they’ll have to learn German. Universities have accounted for this, however, with many German language classes on offer. Other schools offer some classes taught in English under headings such as “International Studies.”

This is all true except for the last paragraph above, which is misleading.

To reiterate, you will not have to learn German. I could get a BA, MA, and PhD in Germany without ever having to pay tuition, despite the fact that I am neither German nor speak any German. Sure, depending on the program, you may require basic German language abilities; but this is not actually requiring fluency by any stretch of the imagination.

You may be required to introduce yourself in German, and perhaps talk about your studies in a very rudimentary way. I suspect that this language requirement (again: for some programs, not all) is more to make sure that you are able to live in Germany; not because it has anything to do with the curriculum. Your degree will be in “International Studies,” but in whatever you’re studying. For example, I found lots of really great-looking neuroscience doctorates during my research.

How and Why?

You may be wondering… how can Germany do this? It’s really kind of simple: Taxes & hopes.

Germany wants more skilled workers, and it hopes that you will enter the German workforce after you graduate. Meanwhile, universities are paid (though they all pretty much claim to be underfunded) through taxes. Yes, taxes are high for Germans, but in case you forgot: tuition is free!

So you might now think “so they are manipulating me in order to get me to work for them?” Not really; but even if that was the case, I find no problem in that. If I am educated in a country that has treated me well, and I have a good social life there, then entering the workforce to “give back” to the community would be an easy choice to make. This is true for any country.

Of course, many factors can influence this decision, but the hope is presumably that you will fall in love with Germany. And you know what? It’s looking pretty attractive.

[November 14 Update: Also read QS’ article on How to Study a PhD in Germany]


The more I learn about Germany, and the idea of moving there for graduate studies, the more I am becoming open to it. This recent news just made it all the more official – Germany is an amazing country. It is not the first or the only country to eliminate tuition, but there’s no other culture like it.

Of course, I’m not going to go into the merits of the German culture ( ‘m not some spokesman for Germany, nor do I know much about the German culture), but I will ask the following question: Won’t young people (specifically, but not exclusively, Americans) who can’t afford the university experience, consider moving to Germany? I don’t think I have met a single American my age in the last few years (where I live in Japan) who are not still paying back student loans from university. Is it that they don’t want to be separated from home? They don’t know about the amazing opportunities abroad? I’m not sure. But, the way I see it, the choice is now this:

  1. Entering the workforce with international experience and an additional language under your belt (if you choose to spend some free time learning German).
  2. Entering the workforce after living near/at home, with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

I know a lot of people (including Americans, who pay the highest tuition fees) would pick #2, simply because being in a foreign country can be scary. I get it – I really do. But you will always have choices in your life that will be scary. At least something like this will also have the added benefit of being an adventure, in a country when more than 6 out of 10 people speak fluent English.

It should be mentioned that just because these programs are free does not mean that they are easy to get into. They are still competitive programs (which also implies that they are high quality), and you will have to work hard in order to be accepted (i.e., good grades, a good CV, etc.). But since this news is so new to most people, the next few years will be probably be easier for international students to get into. Perhaps when more people find out about the free tuition, the competition will become that much greater. Also, free tuition doesn’t mean free room and board. Naturally, students will have to pay for their own living expenses.

The Bottom Line

What it really comes down to is whether or not you are able to say goodbye to a cozy life of certainty (which won’t be so cozy once the debts have to be paid back) in order to embrace this unbelievable opportunity.

I decided to write this post because I am considering this option myself, and I think you would be foolish to ignore this opportunity if money is an issue for you, and you’re interested in higher education. If this post has made you consider Germany, please let me know in the comments section below. Maybe in a few years, I’ll see you there.

For more information, search for German programs available in English here, at the DAAD (i.e., the German Academic Exchange Service).

Photo: University of Erfurt
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3 Responses to Be Smart, Move to Germany (not in that order)

  1. Sophelia says:

    It’s a brilliant move in terms of international relations/soft power too. How many promising Americans will enter influential positions carrying with them positive feelings towards Germany after getting a free education there?
    On a slightly unrelated note, though, in some fields Germany has moved really far to the opposite extreme. My sister, who has been living there for several years, was telling me the other day that rain water is privatized, meaning you can be fined if you collect rainwater, and you have to pay a levy if you have a lawn for the water it soaks up o.0

  2. Ted Golden says:

    This is a pretty good article and there’s a lot of good information here, but as an American who has studied in Germany, just wanted to address this issue:
    “To reiterate, you will not have to learn German.”

    No, the truth is that learning German really is a must if you want to study there. Remember admissions to German universities are competitive (even though it is free once you get there), and without German your chances of admission are almost zero. I did a Masters in Germany and while some seminars and sessions were available in English, it wasn’t nearly as prevalent as I think some Americans think– esp. in technical subjects you must absolutely know German, not only to get through the lectures and coursework but also to access the resources. And upon completing our Masters, all of us, no matter where we came from, were expected to take exams and write essays in German. And then there’s also the issue of simply navigating the German cities, without some German under your belt you’ll be lost.

    I think a lot of people get confused and misled by the Germans’ fluency in other languages, the Germans speak French and Spanish (it’s not just English) to a high degree of proficiency, heck many even speak decent Russian, Chinese, Portuguese or Dutch. And this is reflected in the course offerings, many in fact are provided to some extent in French, Russian, Dutch, Spanish, even Ukrainian. But to get something out of your education there, German really is essential.

    That being said, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, because among other things the German educational system provides free courses and training in advanced, professional-level German as much as in Beginner’s and Intermediate German, so they do a lot to get you up to speed. As long as you show motivation and work to learn German, even if you’re not fluent to start with, , you’ll be fine.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Ted, thanks for the comment! And thanks a lot for the insight.
      I’m not sure what university you went to, but from the DAAD website, there are many places that describe all of their coursework in English. In fact, I have heard that the number of German schools only using English is increasing.
      Of course, having done it yourself, I imagine you know a lot better than I do! So I would appreciate if you can clarify this for me: Doesn’t the language used in the schools simply depend on the institution? (As in, there are actually many places that require no German at all)

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