By Nicole Feyerherm
The United States of America: land of the free, home of the most expensive universities in the world. Just take my comparatively affordable alma mater, Fort Hays State University (FHSU), as an example. One three-credit-hour class costs at least one hundred euros more than a semester’s student fees at the University of Duisburg-Essen. And each full-time FHSU student takes twelve or more credit hours per semester, shelling out enough money for about five semesters of German fees plus a cheap weekend away on top. But although I’m now paying significantly less in cash, I’m paying more in time and stress. While pricey, the United States university system orients itself around student experiences. American universities offer a more structured education system, assistance with all bureaucratic facets of the university, and accessible professors. The German system, while monetarily cheaper, leaves students to fend for themselves in many aspects of their studies. Growing up in the United States, I was taught that higher education was an investment in one’s self; therefore, the price tag was worth it. However, during my transatlantic university experiences, I’ve realized personal investment must not always involve dollars and euros.
Unlike their American counterparts, German universities receive around eighty percent of their budget from the government. (In comparison, FHSU receives about thirty percent.) German universities also maintain their low price tag by keeping administrative positions to a minimum. While this certainly reduces costs, it also increases student responsibility. Rather than simply writing the final exam with the rest of my classmates come semester’s end, I must now wade through red tape to merely take the test in the first place. This is partially due to the modular study system popular in German higher education. Multiple graded assignments and tests throughout the semester plus a final exam, project, or presentation for every course is the American norm. The German system instead bundles courses together with one cumulative exam or paper at the end of the module, not semester. Students must then retain information for multiple semesters, as it is often impossible to complete a module the same semester one begins it. The odd presentation, essay, or homework quiz appears along the way; however, these are often pass-fail and usually offered as additional study material. This might sound deceptively easy compared to the American system. That is, until one realizes a single massive exam determines one’s grade for multiple courses, with minimal in-class opportunities to review the material.
My last full year at FHSU, I participated in an exchange with the University of Duisburg-Essen. During that time, I realized there were significant differences between the universities. Due to these variations, however, I simply needed a few Studienleistungen, namely, academic credits based on “homework” only. Now that I am enrolled full-time, I’m finding the German system more challenging than expected. To be fair, I chose to study in my second language, adding an extra level of difficulty. However, in the US, the bureaucracy that exists is highly navigable. FHSU students are given a map of highly advertised resources available to answer their questions about issues like enrollment, financial aid, tuition payment, and more. In the German system, I must draw the map myself.
Luckily, I can simply ask my faculty advisor for advice. But wait—German students only have faculty advisors while writing theses. Fine. I’ll talk to one of my lecturers. They might not know the answer but could potentially know who would. But wait—they have literally one office hour a week, compared to the multiple office hours of my American professors. If I’m not stuck in class, I’m competing for time with a hundred other students. During pandemic conditions especially, email is an option, of course. But instructors still have limited time and energy. While there is probably an answer online, it is buried in a user-unfriendly university website. And although an office that handles my exact issue may exist, it is likely not advertised at all. I am majoring in Anglophone Studies and German; I will receive an unofficial minor in university bureaucracy and Google.
Two German student services thoroughly outperform the US, though: housing and food service. Sure, the dorms may be cafeteria-less and kilometers away from campus. There is no Pizza Hut in the Mensa, no Starbucks in the Yellow Café. But the on-campus meals are delicious, affordable, and healthy. And German student housing, at least at UDE, offers affordability, quality, and privacy. In the US, students pay thousands of dollars to eat overpriced junk food and share a shoebox of a bedroom with another human being. And the coddling of students seeps into residential life by way of “resident assistants” on every floor. These “RAs” exist to enforce the dorm rules, offer advice, and often act as stand-in parents to the students living there. In Germany, I pay three hundred euros a month for my own room in a shared apartment and the privilege of legally enjoying a beer in it. UDE student housing does have dormitory “tutors,” but typically only one per building. They function primarily as social coordinators and a point of contact for students rather than the Stasi reincarnate. (My experiences with RAs were, for the most part, positive. However, not everyone I knew was so lucky.)
While higher education in the United States focuses on supporting its students outside of the classroom, the German higher education system seems to practice the personal responsibility America preaches. For better or worse, I am treated as an adult, whether it’s through developing my own enrollment plan or being left alone in the dorms. Instead of having information handed to me, I’m learning how to find it for myself. Despite the challenges, I am confident I will learn here what my American university experience failed to teach me: how to study independently, how to cope with high volumes of material, and how to find answers for myself both in and out of the classroom. While this all still requires a monetary investment from my parents and me, it is a significantly cheaper one. It still requires an investment in myself, however—an investment of time, thought, and self-discipline. German university offers me numerous learning opportunity beyond pure academics, and I’m excited to grow.