Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tuition or subsidy?

There are few areas in which Germans and Americans differ more than in the question of whether college should be free. Since I first arrived in Germany some 21 years ago, German students have repeatedly gone on strike. I remember them blocking my access to classrooms in Hamburg in 1988, and I was not happy because I was borrowing loans to get through college in the US and did not have a semester to wait on a one-year exchange program. When I came back as a graduate student in 1992, students in Freiburg were once again striking; in both cases, chairs were piled up at entrances, making it difficult to enter the building.

I then became a lecturer, and found myself dealing with the student strikes as a teacher, if memory serves me correctly, in 1994 and 1997. I once came to a class and found a group of students I did not know sitting on desks. They informed me that my English class would not be held that day, but we could talk about the strike if I wanted. I said that would be fine -- as long as we did so in English.

I then surprised all of my students by expressing all kinds of reasons why it does not make sense for universities to be free. If you read German, you can get some of this in an article I published a few years ago. Essentially, the way things work in Germany, universities -- where the prodigy of the upper class go -- are free, whereas all sorts of vocational schools, etc. are not, nor are simple daycare centers and kindergartens. The original idea was, of course, to attract students from lower classes, who might be discouraged by high tuition fees, but that did not happen. Most German students today are still the offspring of former German students. Free universities are a gift to the wealthy.

I seem to be very American in this opinion. I see that Mother Jones, a leftist publication, has just written the following:

...college is valuable. It generally attracts people who already have a lot of advantages, and then provides them with a degree that enhances their earning power even more. Why should they be subsidized at all?

The MoJo writer cites that line of thinking as "compelling," but adds that tuition should include waivers for the poor.

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