On Oct. 1, Germany’s Lower Saxony became the last German state to make college free to all, including international students. Briefly breaking from a national tradition of free universities, Germany began charging a small amount of tuition in 2006, but that experiment failed. German leaders now say the tuition-based education is unjust and unfairly privileges students from affluent backgrounds. “Tuition fees degrade the educational opportunities for bright young people from low-income families,” Gabriele Heinen-Kljajic, state minister for science in Lower Saxony, told the state parliament in September.
By contrast, tuition in the United States at public and private colleges has risen steeply over the past 10 years. Even worse, private for-profit colleges have proliferated around the country, with enrollment growing by 225 percent from 1998 to 2008. These colleges prey on low-income students, leaving many deep in debt, without a degree and in low-paying jobs that bear little resemblance to the descriptions in for-profit college’s recruitment pitches and late-night television ads.
When I was 16 years old, I got very lucky. The oldest of 10 children in a low-income Minnesota farm family, I gained admittance to the University of Chicago. The school wanted small-town students, and federal student aid then was a lot more generous than it is now. A combination of federal grants and National Merit and University of Chicago scholarships covered most of the tuition. I worked part-time and took out student loans to cover the rest of my expenses, but the loans were manageable. I received a world-class education and a good start on life.
Today students from low-income households face a colder, meaner college world. Low-income students are more likely to enter college without adequate preparation and to drop out before completing a degree.