I just published a piece at Quillette on my experience within Germany’s tuition-free university system. A sample:
Yet the tuition-free system also has disadvantages. The first difference an American will notice is that most German universities look dingy and threadbare. Many were erected hastily in the 1960s and 1970s to house new students brought in by liberalizing reforms, and these cheap, poorly maintained structures are notoriously ugly (a German magazine recently ran a feature on “German Universities Ranked by Ugliness”). Most classrooms still feature rigid wooden or metal desks bolted into rows. Wireless coverage, library stocks, laboratory gear and classroom A/V equipment lag far behind the average American state university. It’s still possible to arrive to give a lecture and find an overhead projector awaiting your transparencies. Professors’ salaries are much lower than in the United States, and Germany’s problem with “adjunctification” and precarious conditions for aspiring scholars (known by the German neologism Prekarisierung) is becoming as urgent as it is in the United States.
This bare-bones regime also dominates student life and counseling. German universities are sink-or-swim: if you have scholarly or personal problems while studying, help will come only from overburdened counselors with hundreds of cases, or from student volunteers. Along with lax admissions standards, this fact helps explain the high dropout rates; one-third of all students who enroll in German universities never finish. A recent OECD study found that only 28.6 percent of Germans aged between 25 and 64 had a tertiary education degree, as compared to 46.4 percent of Americans (although classification issues mean these numbers must be handled with care). This chronic lack of resources—in addition to the understandable fact that many outstanding German scholars publish in German—also helps explain why German universities punch below their weight in international rankings, a topic of obsessive concern to German politicians.
American college tuition is often obscenely high, but I don’t think the answer is abolishing tuition entirely, just as the answer to housing shortages isn’t to abolish rent entirely. Moderation in all things!