Expat Essentials

Why American expats are studying in Germany instead of at fancy U.S. colleges

(Editor’s note: At Dispatches, we’ve posted often about how studying in Europe, especially Germany, is a viable alternative to crazy American student debt. American journalist and graduate student Lily Cichanowicz has myriad reasons studying in Berlin, in particular, is increasingly seen as both a smart move career-wise and as a ticket to a more rewarding university experience.)

It’s basically old news that rates of student debt in the United States are steadily climbing. Graduates in 2017 on average have about $40,000 in student loan debt, which is a hike of 6 percent from the year prior. In total, about 44 million Americans are plagued by student loans.

Furthermore, the number of Americans choosing the expat life has experienced a surge over the last five years, with millennials making up one of the largest demographics to seek residence outside of the U.S., according to the Global Trends Moving Report.

Of course, many of these are young professionals with the credentials to find gainful employment in numerous fields ranging from STEM to more creative pursuits. Yet, this is by no means the gateway to a new life abroad. As an American expat currently living in Berlin, I have spent the last couple years deciding how to further develop myself professionally. Rather than seek more experience in my current field, I decided it was time to pursue a postgraduate degree.

Consistent with the fact that we Americans are often known for our exceptionalism, my knee-jerk reaction was to return to the U.S. after more than three years of living and working in Europe in order to further my education. A graduate of a prestigious university back home, I find that many of us – admittedly, myself included – are easily swooned by top name private (for-profit) schools.

After doing a bit of research, however, I discovered the appeal of studying here in Berlin. My findings definitely extend, to a large extent, to universities across Germany and even to much of Europe.

The price tag

First and foremost, one of the biggest draws for studying in Germany is that the schools are essentially free. This even goes for foreigners. For instance, one semester at Freie Universität, where I will begin studying in the fall, costs 312 euros in administrative fees. With this money, I receive a heavily subsidized transportation pass for the duration of the semester, along with other services.

Furthermore, Berlin is still relatively cheap for a European capital city, and many other things ranging from rent to on-campus dining to haircuts and museum entries are subsidized or substantially discounted for students. Not to mention, with my student visa, I can work 120 full days each year to help offset living costs.

Plus, because school is cheaper and publicly funded, the general atmosphere on campus and overall attitudes of the students are more relaxed than the culture of competition and rush for completion that often exists on university campuses in the U.S. It’s easier to maintain a good work-life balance because there are fewer norms about how and when to finish your degree.

The quality

At this point, you might be wondering whether the quality of public universities in Germany will stand up to those fancy private schools back home. I certainly was.

The thing is that here in Germany, the public university system predominates, and there is less discrepancy between the quality of education from university to university. Plus, numerous German schools are highly ranked and consistently included within lists of top universities worldwide.

Research schools in Berlin such as Humboldt University, Freie Universität, and Technische Universität Berlin, all have great reputations locally and internationally. Particularly for fields like engineering and the sciences, Germany degrees are widely revered.

English is an option

Another concern that might keep you from considering school in Germany is the language barrier. Indeed, learning German is no walk in the park.

Luckily, students who are serious about studying in German can take intensive language courses alongside their degree curricula or even do a year of German study through the university before beginning their degrees. Like this, you’ll complete your education in a great program as a bilingual person. What’s more is that in many cases only the core distribution requirements will be in German. Once you go on to your electives, there are plenty of English options available.

If this still feels like a major hurdle that you’re not so keen on undertaking, it’s definitely worth noting that there are also entire programs taught in English – especially at the postgraduate level. In fact, my master’s degree under the Philology Department in Literature, Language, and Culture is taught entirely in English.

There are no German requirements whatsoever for pursuing this course of study.

That extra something

Along with dodging student loan debt and the opportunity to learn a new language, completing your degree at a university in Germany will definitely add a little something extra to your resume, whether you intend to go back to the US and work or further your studies in a doctorate program. Showing that you were able to complete a degree in a foreign country speaks volumes about your own adaptability and the kind of perspective you can bring to the team.

You certainly will have gained experience in intercultural communication, learning a new language, and a deeper understanding of the world by pursuing a degree in Germany. Talk about getting bang for your buck!

Upon the completion of your degree, you may even want to stay in Germany. After all, you’ll have built up a network of contacts during your studies and may even begin to call the city where you do your studies home. After all, the quality of life in Germany is among the best in the world.


Speaking from the perspective of someone who has chosen to study in Berlin, I can definitely speak to the perks of living in Germany’s capital city. The city has a great internationally focused food scene, a burgeoning culture of contemporary art, and globally distinct experimental music scene. There are numerous beautiful and spacious parks and other green spaces, along with numerous platzes with weekend farmers and flea markets.

The social welfare that protects both students and workers, the general lack of extreme social inequality and overall safety at all times of day, makes Berlin is an amazingly livable city.

Euro life is a coveted thing for a reason, and whilst school isn’t so cheap for expats in every country within the Eurozone, much of these same themes apply across the continent.

Thus, even if you never imagined that you’d wind up getting a degree in Europe, for the reasons I’ve laid out here in this post it may be time to reconsider


About the author:

Lily Cichanowicz is an American freelance writer and journalist currently based in Berlin. In the form of cultural analysis, her writing is a critical exploration of everything from the personal to the political, and her aim is to share the insights she has with readers.

On her website, you can find a curated selection of her favorite pieces.

You can see more of Lily’s posts about Germany and Berlin here:

Lily Cichanowicz’s Viva 6! Six genuinely cool cities in Germany that aren’t Berlin

Lily Cichanowicz: Berlin’s coolest spots for creative minds

Berlin Dreams: The land of opportunity in a changing world


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