Free and Unequal

Higher education should be free. But we can’t just copy the flawed European model.

Till Westermayer / Flickr

When the news came in early October that Germany had abolished its remaining tuition fees, responses ranged from jubilant to cautionary. Those familiar with German higher education were quick to point out that this hardly altered the status quo: tuition has long been cheap, and university fees had dwindled further still over the past decade. Lower Saxony was the lone holdout, and now it too would join the ranks of the tuition-less states.

The fact that tuition would be free to international students wasn’t quite news either: non-Germans had already been taking advantage of the system in droves.

Still, this proud statement from a nation that had supposedly shown itself to value higher education over profit prompted some hand-wringing and self-examination in places where students carry debt loads years after graduating. If Germany can offer all its students a free university education, left-leaning outlets like Slate and the Guardian wondered, why can’t the US?

The answer, of course, is we can. But the German model is hardly without its faults. Germany’s secret to success is barely a secret at all: it can make university free to all its students because only a fraction of them actually matriculate. In short, the education system is rife with tracking.

The roughly 28 percent of German students who receive an Abitur — the diploma that signifies their eligibility to apply to university — are singled out as early as their preteens and put on a track to go to Gymnasium, the highest level of secondary schooling and the closest thing Germany has to a traditional American high school or British public school. The judgment usually comes at age twelve, when teachers make a recommendation about each student’s readiness for a higher level of study.

Critics point out how difficult it is to judge youngsters long before their academic abilities have become apparent.

“You never know what’s going on at home with a kid,” explains twenty-seven-year-old Lucy Dauner, a half-German, half-American teaching trainee at a primary school in Berlin Charlottenburg. “He might be extremely gifted, but because of all of these psychological aspects that play into it, he might not be concentrating well enough, might be lacking in one little detail, might be good at math but falling behind in German. You have to be good at everything to qualify for Gymnasium.”

Those who don’t qualify are put on a second, skilled labor track; eventually they receive on-the-job training sponsored by various companies in conjunction with further education at the German version of a trade school. Post-crash, this trade school-plus-apprenticeship model has been widely praised in the United States. Even President Obama referenced the German model in his 2012 State of the Union address:

Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges.  So those German kids, they’re ready for a job when they graduate high school. They’ve been trained for the jobs that are there.

In the year and a half following the address, both the Financial Times and the New York Times ran profiles of German companies operating stateside who were beginning to do just that — very often in economically depressed parts of America where students with a high school or even college diploma have very little hope of finding a well-paying job. A program like this, both articles hinted, was a magic third way — a chance at meaningful work for students who could not afford to go into debt after a four-year degree and might otherwise languish in minimum-wage jobs.

But adopting the German model would only formalize the subtle tracking that already occurs in American schools. It would further calcify our stratified class system. As for Germany, that supposed bastion of social democracy, separating students into different tracks seems at odds with the society’s stated values.

Germans tend to play down the significance of the divide by praising the blue-collar workers among them. This is no doubt rooted in a longstanding devotion to unions and workers’ rights. The country was, after all, home to the continent’s most powerful socialist party. Many Germans also believe that its thriving manufacturing sector is what has cemented its status as the EU’s economic powerhouse.

Reinhard Roth, managing director of the prestigious John F. Kennedy School, advises: “You should go to university if you can, but we [Germans] believe our success is based on a highly trained workforce. Working class heroes are the backbones of our country: the car industry, machinery, these are extremely important in Germany.”

Yet this recognition exists alongside marked academic pretentiousness. Many Germans proudly display their academic degrees to a extent that seems ludicrous to foreigners. Germans are fond of the double or triple academic title, and it is not unusual to see a name in print that lists all of these at once, making names like “Herr Prof. Dr. Dr. Müller” (a university professor named Müller who has two doctoral degrees) the norm in academic circles.

These titles even proliferate in residential parts of cities with renowned universities, as Germans insist on crowding their front-door nameplates and mailboxes with such extended titles. In other words, perhaps there is a reason such a rigid school system still exists here: in Germany, the academic title reigns supreme, and those who have one have a vested interest in keeping it that way.

Separating students into groups that can and cannot go to university merely reinforces the importance of a university education. But when the stated aim of such a system is to create two separate but equal tiers, it is almost bound to fail. Or at least to leave some students feeling trapped in a holding pattern over which they have little control.

For example, a 2012 study examined the socioeconomic backgrounds of 15,000 college students in Germany that year. Although advocates insist economics plays little role — the vast majority of Germany’s school-age children go to state-funded schools at little to no cost — it is clear from the study results that jumping from one tier to another can be hardest for the children of non-academic parents and immigrants.

The study’s most jarring takeaway: seventy-seven out of every one hundred children with academic parents will also go on to study at a university; only twenty-three out of every one hundred children whose parents are skilled workers will matriculate.

In other words, students whose parents earned the Abitur are more likely to wind up getting one too. The same, of course, is true in the United States. But American liberals, eager for an alternative, praise Germany’s free provision without looking at the details. Free higher education is no guarantee of widespread access.

At least subconsciously, Germans get this. They see that there is a vicious circle aspect to their schooling, and their children’s schooling. Even though, like Roth, they are quick to point out how crucial workers are in shaping Germany’s industrial future — and how right Germany has been to train these workers — they simply can’t shake the feeling that the higher tier is more desirable, and that their children should be pushed towards it whenever possible.

“To switch from primary school to Gymnasium you had to pass a kind of IQ test,” remembers forty-seven-year-old Frank Erlebach, himself now the father of two primary school-aged daughters. “I got a recommendation for Mittelschule [literally ‘middle school,’ a step towards the lower training tier that has since been phased out]. My mother said, ‘No, he isn’t going to Mittelschule. He has to at least try Gymnasium.’”

“I had the pressure that Germans have to succeed, to be able to go to Gymnasium,” Dauner says. “I didn’t know what ‘Gymnasium’ meant, but I knew that that word meant something very good.”

Recognizing the need for reform, Berlin introduced the Gesamtschule, or “comprehensive schooling” concept as an option along with the traditional models. Gesamtschule has just one track in which all students receive the same education — up to a point. Those who wish to begin an apprenticeship leave after the tenth class, while those planning to go to university stay on until the twelfth or even thirteenth class to prepare for their Abitur.

Unfortunately, even the Gesamtschule has had mixed results in competition with the prestige of the traditional Gymnasium, to which exceptionally bright children often end up transferring. “The good kids leave after sixth grade to go to Gymnasium anyway,” explains Dauner, “because their parents don’t want them to stay with the ‘bad’ students.” This disappointing result is a reinforcement of the two-tiered system that the Gesamtschule was meant to do away with in the first place.

In seeking solutions to the ever-widening educational divide here in the United States, it can of course be tempting — and instructive — to look at countries that have been doing it better for years. But we must not shy away from questioning what “better” really means.

The tendency to look to Northern Europe and Scandinavia’s egalitarian shores should be tempered with a healthy level of skepticism: the European model often does not live up to its own hype. Free higher education should be the aim in the United States. But it can’t be constructed on a class-riven foundation.