German universities are nothing like American ones

Humboldt University, Berlin - one of the most important German universities

It’s fall. After a record-hot summer, the evenings have gotten cooler and chestnuts in their spiky husks are falling to the pavement, hopefully, and not onto some unwitting passersby’s head.

It is also my older daughter Natasha’s first year at university. For her, a whole new era begins. For me, it brings back memories of my own university education.

But not really. German universities contrast so sharply to that of the U.S. that there seem to be more differences than similarities. In the U.S. there is a lead-up of one or two years even to just apply, beginning with ACTs, SATs and the college scouting trips across the country. A short list of colleges is made and then begin the countless essays: What is your goal in life? If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be? Why makes you so special that we would admit you to our fantastic educational institution? I always tell Germans this is why Americans are so good at marketing: they are training to market themselves at a very early age and are rewarded for doing it well. And don’t forget those extracurricular activities and volunteer work – must have proof that you are an upstanding citizen, too.

In Germany, hardly anybody even thinks about what college they’re going to attend. This is because attendance at Gymnasium, the uppermost of the three-tiered system, guarantees you entrance into any state-run college. Plus they bleed you to death during the final year with excruciating written exams that last four to six hours and hour-long oral exams in front of a jury of three teachers. Just surviving this stage physically is a heroic achievement; if the student gets good grades it’s a downright miracle.

It wasn’t until after Natasha had recovered from her exam marathon that she even looked into what college she wanted to attend. She chose Augsburg for its close vicinity and relatively small size compared to Munich’s well-known but supersized Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität (LMU). She was able to pre-register online and the final step of matriculation she had to do in person.

We took the train, then a short tram ride, and got into line with the other students. After about 45 minutes of stopping off at various registration stations, she walked out with her student ID, a colorful binder full of information material and invitations issued by cheery students manning various booths to several get-togethers for new students.

This blew my mind. I have distinct, agonizing memories from my college years when I juggled tuition figures back and forth for the months preceding registration for each semester at Georgetown University where I studied. Money came from student loans, savings, and projected earnings by D-Day, for all money had to be paid the day of registration or you were turned away and had to wait out the semester. Classes in summer semesters were cheaper, so I packed my summer full to maximize the savings.

Invariably I would come up short and would panic about how to bridge the gap. Could I work overtime? Did I miscalculate? Maybe I could save just a little more on food – or resort to eating canned peas every night like my housemate who was paying off an exorbitant fee she had been charged by an employment agency to land her first job. I never bought clothes anyway and walked the four miles to class to save bus money if it wasn’t too hot – but at least I could take the GUTS bus, which had a stop near my group house and took me straight to school.

One summer I worked an additional evening job in a call center selling ridiculous items like credit card insurance or trying to drum up contributions for the Republican Party. I never sold a single thing, but luckily the hourly wage was enough to tip the balance.

In contrast, all my daughter had to do was pay € 114 for the student union. I paid several times that just for my books! It’s a whole different world here. I can only shake my head in wonder whenever they try to start charging tuition at public universities and the students immediately take to the streets in furious protest. We’re not talking about the tens of thousands of dollars that U.S. universities charge, the proposed tuition is usually just a nominal fee of a few hundred euros per semester. Outrageous!

They just don’t know how good they have it. Gymnasium, especially in Bavaria, goes way overboard with the academic requirements (Most still require Latin. Really? Are the Romans coming back? And if so, guess what guys, even they don’t speak Latin anymore!) But if you can survive this gristmill you are home free! Except for the €114, of course.

Brenda Arnold

Title photo by H. Helmlechner

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