Study abroad for free? It sounds too good to be true but this is now the reality in Germany and other European countries – even for foreigners. What’s the catch?

High school students, tell your parents: it’s financially irresponsible to not study abroad. At a time when the average debt load of the American college student is around USD 30,000 and when the country has USD 1.2 trillion of student loan debt in total, one country has decided to go in the opposite direction by offering free education not only to their own citizens but to foreign students as well.

The catch? You’ve got to learn German – and live in a country known for its insanely good beer. So basically, there’s no catch.

Free higher education in Germany

Germany has offered incredibly affordable university education for quite some time now — before the tuition became free, the average cost was around USD 630. Germany had previously banned tuition fees but the ban was lifted in 2006, a move that was so unpopular that many states banned tuition and fees on their own. The last state to fall in line was Lower Saxony, which announced it would no longer charge tuition in 2014.

Dorothee Stapelfeldt, a German senator, explained that they struck down the tuition fees because they ‘discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study’.

Naturally, for foreign students, a big issue is not knowing the language: most courses are taught in German, so fluency in this relatively difficult language is essential if you want to attend a German university. There are some programs that are taught in English, but many students opt to attend German language programs before attending school.

Study abroad in Europe

Germany is not the only place where Americans and other foreigners can study for a significantly smaller amount of money than they can in their own country. Finland doesn’t have tuition fees, and many of their courses are in English. Public universities in France only cost around USD 200, and Sweden offers PhDs for free. Norway also covers tuition of foreigners, as does Slovenia. And Brazil only charges small registration fees, though it has fewer programs in English.

American students who not only want to get an affordable education but also want to immerse themselves in another culture, maybe ought to think less about expensive study programs and more about studying in a country that offers affordable tuition.

Free education, however, isn’t totally free. Germany, like many of the other countries listed above, has much higher tax rates than countries like the United States. But if the education of the populace is seen as an investment rather than a product to be sold, this makes sense; the United States model of driving an entire generation into crippling debt is probably not the best one.

For travellers, the ideal of free education is a dream come true. I, for one, may well have been interested in studying German in high school if I knew it could save me my US tuition debt – and I would have been able to itch that wanderlust a bit better.

Hopefully at some point other countries follow suit, but in the meantime, young travelers who want to see the world can now do so — while getting a degree under their belt at the same time.

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