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March 03, 2015

Jay Malone is capitalizing on Germany's push to recruit international students by helping Americans who want to study there. (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH). 

Despite the high cost of college in this country, most Americans will choose to go to school here. But there is a growing number of students who are getting their degrees in other countries, like Germany, where their taxpayers pick up the tab. WGBH's On Campus team recently traveled to Cologne to explore this higher ed defection, and the implications for the United States.

At a cafe just around the corner from the University of Cologne, students sink into big armchairs and sip lattes.

This is Rachael Smith’s favorite place to spend down time between classes. The 26-year-old is working on her master’s degree here and has been living in Germany for almost two years.

“I love it here. I really like the city. I love the culture,” Smith said. “Cologne is a very open city, a very friendly city. I definitely get the vibe that Germans appreciate a foreign presence in the city.”

Rachael is one of almost 100 Americans studying at the University of Cologne. And, like all of them, she’s doing it for free.

“I wouldn’t have studied my master’s in the United States, just the cost was not an option,” Smith said. “I have enough debt from studying my undergrad, so I didn’t want to pile that on. But when I found this program, I realized it could be an actual option.”

Free education in Germany isn't new, but the country has seen an uptick in interest from abroad. Today more than 150,000 international students are getting a degree here, including more than 4,000 Americans. That’s double what it was just five years ago.

Those Americans are part of a growing number of students choosing to get their degrees in other countries, like Germany, where it’s free. And while the amount of students choosing that path is not enough to worry American schools, it is enough to be a boon for Germany.

In Siegen 

The University of Siegen is in a small regional capital east of Cologne, Germany. (Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH). 

German universities are marketing heavily. They’re highlighting their strengths in research, and building connections with professors at other schools. And while free is a great selling point, it’s also just the start.

Jay Malone is from Columbus, Ohio, but is now living in Germany. He’s found a way to capitalize on Germany’s efforts to recruit internationally.

“Cost is what gets people in the door. Cost is what initially interests people,” Malone said. “A person who was only interested in cost, that person is very unlikely to come over. You need to have other interests, other things that are driving you.”

Malone got his masters degree in Germany, and now he’s running a niche college-consulting firm called Eight Hours and Change. Recently, he’s gotten a ton of emails from Americans wanting his help to study in Germany.

We joined Malone on a scouting mission to the University of Siegen. It’s one of the places he’ll take a group of American high-schoolers visiting in June.

Siegen is a smaller regional capital, nestled in the hills east of Cologne and the Rhineland. On the day we visited, a light dusting of snow covered the pointed roofs and slate-tiled cottages of the city’s old town.

Delisha Duran is an American from Chattanooga, Tennessee. She’s studying at the University of Siegen. While she’s enjoyed the international experience, she said there are downsides to living in this German fairytale.

“I miss having a gym five minutes away,” Duran said. “I miss having a cafeteria that will give me endless food for the whole day.”

And, Duran added, even for the most adventurous students, living abroad is a challenge.

“One of the things you have to consider is that you’re going to cry, a lot,” Duran said. “You’re going to miss home a ton.”

If students still think they’re up to the challenge they’ll have to get through the German admissions process, which is totally different than it is in the United States, said Jay Malone.

“It's much more transparent, and it is entirely academic based,” said Malone.

There are no recommendations or extensive résumés. Instead, students just need the same types of test scores that would get them into a solid state school in the U.S.

And then there’s the language barrier. But, Germany is offering more and more programs in English at both the master’s and bachelor’s level. The government will even pay for German language classes. Germany wants these international students here, even though their taxpayers foot the bill.

“Germany is not a country that's growing,” Malone said. “Its population is not growing. They need people, they need immigrants. They want to be a migration country.”

Competition and Cooperation

Think about it this way: it’s a global game of collecting talent. All these students are the trading cards and the collectors are countries. If a country get collect more talent, they'll have an influx of new ideas, new businesses, and a thriving economy.

“If you look at Germany, the only resource we do have are human resources actually,” said Dorothea Rueland, Secretary General of the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD.

The DAAD is in charge of Germany’s push to attract more international students. “We depend on innovation, on inventions, and where do they come from? From institutions of higher education or from research institutions,” said Rueland.

A map of full-time degree options at German universities that are taught in English. Information from the German Rectors Conference.

According to the DAAD, half of foreign students getting a degree here will stay. And not just for the short-term, 40 percent of students plan on being here for at least 10 years. In the U.S., only 12 percent of international students opt to stay for even one year.

Related: International Graduates Face Tough Visa Process

When asked whether she sees Germany as competing with American universities for the same talent, Rueland didn’t hesitate.

“We are part of this world and we cannot neglect these trends going on. So of course, we are competitors,” said Rueland.

But Rueland was also quick to point out that competing is only part of the picture. The other part is cooperation.

“If you look at the global challenges everybody’s talking about, questions of climate change, energy, water, high-tech… This cannot be solved by one institution or one country,” Rueland said. “So you have to have big international networks. We all know this. This is actually the mission we have.”

American universities say they share that mission of cooperation -- and they don’t see Germany as competition, yet.

A Mobile Degree

Back in Cologne, we met up with a group of Americans who are now part of that international network Rueland described. We asked them about their future plans, and whether they see themselves working in Germany or the U.S. after graduating.

“I want to see what the workforce is like [in Germany], like a full-time job and see if I enjoy it,” said Glen Bornhoft, a recent graduate from the University of Cologne. “Because so far I really enjoy studying here and meeting all the different types of people that I’ve met.”

Andrew Kinder, who is studying business administration, agreed.

“I think that would be the more realistic way to have it pay off, to start the next phase of my career here in Germany, and hope with an international corporation, or an American corporation, and at some point maybe move back to the States.”

But Natasha Turner, who is studying for her Master’s in North American studies, wasn’t as sure.

“I don’t know,” Turner said. “I know employers on both sides of the ocean will look at my CV and say ‘Oh, oh that looks good.’ I'm employable anywhere.”

Employers agree. With her German degree, Natasha is mobile. So if she doesn’t want to come back to the States, she doesn’t have to. America still has enough talent, and enough students, at least for now.

This is part two in our ongoing series that examines higher education in Germany, and compares it to the challenges we face here in the U.S. 

To see the rest of the stories visit German Lessons: What the U.S. Can Learn About Education From Germany

German Lessons, Germany, global competitiveness

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