By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/26/2004 8:27:26 AM ET 2004-03-26T13:27:26

Free higher education in the home of Western civilization's most provocative thinkers, a chance to learn a second language -- and a legal drinking age of 16? It's a formula that might appeal to both stressed parents and students alike!

Germany is willing to accommodate what could be a dream for many American families, worried about the skyrocketing cost of higher education.

“Our idea is to get the best people to the universities,” said Nina Lemmens, the London-based director of the German Academic Exchange Service, the DAAD.

This week, Lemmens has been promoting the free international degree program in English to British students, who also are worried about higher college fees. But she explained the German universities also are keen on recruiting American and other international students for their tuition-free programs.

Science, math, and medical students once flocked to Germany from around the world, but as “scientific German” fell by the wayside, foreign achievers from Hong Kong to Cairo began to look elsewhere for courses in English.

Now, Germany is determined to regain its preeminent role in higher education by offering an international degree program taught in English. Students are encouraged to learn German as a second language.

Studying at the country’s oldest university in picturesque Heidelberg, which dates back to 1386, or at Humbolt University in the vibrant reunified capital city of Berlin may sway some. Along with the academic programs, the home of Oktoberfest also promises a lively student life for all.

“I think anyone who has the opportunity to study abroad should grab it,” said Monika Riely, a member of the DAAD Alumni Association who studied in Munich.

Students today, partners tomorrow
All three-year Bachelor degrees and the majority of Masters and PhDs are offered at public universities, which are free of charge.

International students can choose from more than 600 courses covering a wide spectrum of topics, including art, chemistry, computer science, economics, engineering, and psychology. Supplemental German courses are also offered, but knowledge of the language is not a prerequisite for admission.

“We hope that students from today will be our partners tomorrow,” Lemmens said.

“If they go back (to their home countries) and go into business, Germany will still be there first port of call for their careers,” she said.

With an enrollment of around half German and half foreign students, the international degree program, set up by the German Education Ministry in 1997, “also gives (German) students who don’t have a chance to go abroad a way to gain an international perspective,” Lemmens said.

German students will also improve their language skills through studying and socializing in English.

U.S. university fees skyrocket
Meantime, university fees in the United States have skyrocketed in recent years. The cost of tuition, room and board for the 2003-2004 scholastic year averaged $10,636 for public universities, and $26,854 for private universities, according to the College Board, a nonprofit association that runs college programs and services.

With Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges flying off the scale, and public universities increasing prices by nearly 10 percent a year, young Americans are racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

If students opt for a German university, they should plan to spend between $600 and $800 a month on living expenses, according to the DAAD.

Deutsches Studentenwerk, the German student affairs association, offers a value-for-money service package for foreign students that includes a dorm room, health insurance, midday meals, and guidance counseling for around $400 a month.

The more one compares prices the more appealing three years of sauerkraut, bratwurst, and beer sound. And to sweeten the deal, scholarships are also available to the most qualified applicants.

In addition to an inexpensive education, “it makes you realize the world is bigger than your own backyard; it gives you a better understanding of your own countrymen, and of other cultures – which these days is even more necessary than before,” said Riely of the DAAD Alumni Association, who studied in Munich on a scholarship that covered all living and travel expenses from 1969-71.

“The chance to study German alongside their courses makes (the program) even more attractive – 100 million speak it in all of Europe,” said Lemmens, the London-based DAAD director.

German recruiters flock to Britain
In Britain, the government plans to increase university fees from a maximum of around £1,000 ($1,808) a year to £3,000 ($5,424). While the price-tag still seems reasonable compared to that of their American counterparts, Britons have taken to the streets in protest.

Capitalizing on the situation, representatives of German universities were in Britain advertising their tuition-free programs, and the British media picked up on the trend with such headlines as: “Degree without debt? Germany calling.”

The high cost of living in London may also spur Britons to opt for Germany’s larger cities over their own capital. But, for Americans there are a few monetary drawbacks.

The dollar is not faring well against the euro; the exchange rate this week was around was $1.22 to the euro -- and is projected to fall further in coming months.  A distance of about 4,000 miles between the New York and Berlin also makes for expensive flights home.

Meanwhile, students with their hearts set on attending “name brand” universities recognized worldwide may prefer to stay in the United States as Germany has no “elite” institutions. In fact, the German government is in the process of encouraging universities to compete against each other to create 10 such “elites” by 2010. But, critics have argued that German institutions lack funds, are over crowded, and libraries and laboratories are poorly equipped.

So while Germany may not be for everybody, the budget-conscious and globe-trotting may be enticed by the lure of an international education.

One alumni was certainly impressed. “There were no drawbacks; it was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Riely.

For more information on the international degree program see: www.daad.de/idp.

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