Over the last week, I've had conversations with my university colleagues about the cost of a college education. In Germany, there isn't any cost. Students must house and feed themselves (as they would have to do even if they weren't in college), but there is no tuition. Eighteen-year-olds take a state-sponsored exam, and those who score well are given a free higher education (except for a modest activity fee and the cost of texts).
The cost of tuition at a good private college in the States often exceeds $30,000; state schools are much less, but the cost is rising. Students can get grants and scholarships, but these rarely cover the whole cost. Most students go into debt to attend college, sometimes into staggering debt. I asked one colleague if my German students knew how lucky they are, compared to American students. His response was interesting: "Is it luck, or is education a civil right, as well as a country's investment in its future?"
But a different slant was provided by another colleague: "I used to think it was good that students paid no tuition. But now I think they might value their classes more if they paid some modest amount for them." Certainly I've seen that phenomenon borne out when I taught college in Rochester; my best students were usually the older adults who were plunking down their own hard-earned money, not their parents' money, for their education.
I can see both sides of this issue. I don't know the answer. But I still think these German students are fortunate.