This is one of those essays....which a non-German can write and lay across the perception and reality of Germany, free university deals, and making a university system that works basically the same way that it did over four hundred years ago.
First, let's get this straight up front.....nothing is entirely free under the German university system. There's a semester fee involved and it'll differ from university to university, and it'll run somewhere between 200 and 250 Euro a semester (figure 240 to 290 dollars). Books? It's generally on the student. Lab fees or additional cost fees? That's onto the student.
The rent or board? That's on the student to cover....just like the monthly mass transit ticket, the food, the beer money, etc. You can figure that the typical kid needs roughly 800 Euro ($950) out of their pocket to cover the ten months of a typical school period.
So you could say that it's not free or such....but reasonably priced (better term to use).
Second, no university in Germany is set up and run like a NCAA football, basketball or baseball operation. Sports is a personal thing and you might participate in some local league of basketball....but you aren't at the Mainz University to be some future NBA star. So, the type of students they attract....aren't the same flavor or type that you'd find in the US. These are kids with no future career in the NFL or NHL.
Third, if you were a marginal kid in high school and just thought that your destiny was some walk through high school, and then an open door to some German university with less than average grades....well, it just won't work. The high school in Germany will weed you out and ensure you probably don't reach some front door of a university.
If you do happen to skate through and get to the door of a German university....then try to party it up....like you would at Louisville or Florida State? Well, you might last one semester before they disengage you from the German university. Go try to find another university in German that will accept you after that.
Fourth, the route to German university. Well....it's safe to say on a yearly basis....around thirty-percent of the kids will get to that level. The rest will enter the apprentice program and get a craft which will meet their goals in life. Germans figured out that you really don't need a whole bunch of college-degreed folks to do no-degree-required type work. Shocker? Oh yeah.
Fifth, the odds of a German university creating fake or worthless degree programs? You can go and pull down the entire listing of degrees available from most public institutions in Germany. It's hard to really compare their listing and that of a major US college. I admit.....they do have French literature classes, some regional studies degrees, and various dead or dying languages degrees. But they try extra hard to measure up to an education system which has been around since 1088.
The original intent of colleges was to take gifted young men, and introduce them to logical thinking, philosophy, and address reasoning. Latin, Greek mythical stories, and classic literature figured into the balance of requirements in that first 500 years. To be kinda honest, if you review the first 500 years of European university operations....you tend to find alcohol consumption to be a problem, along with brawls or fights, and occasional riots for or against students as being the 'norm'. That kinda got trimmed out in the past couple hundred years.
Germans have tried to stay within some boundary and designed the university system to produce thinkers. The belief is that these are the gifted folks, and they will use the skills taught to enhance not just the land, but society itself.
So, when someone stands up and says Germany offers free college and America ought to do the same....well, there's just a bit more to the story than you think.
If we went by their model, it's true....you'd pay some fee of $500 for each semester, and you'd save tons of money and avoid college loans that will cripple you later in life. But there'd be no NCAA deal involved in the university. We'd block the door to any student with marginal success from his past education work. We'd turn off dozens of worthless degree programs. We'd start to question what professors make financially. We'd likely trim the support staff of every university. And we'd probably force half the kids trying to enter a college to rethink their career plans and sign up with a community college instead....to get some trade or craftsman skill.
Once you explain that to the general public or some group of geeky college presidents.....they'd just decline the German "free" deal university, and just keep going with what they got.
Yeah, it's not worth stirring up the pot....if you know it's a radically different stew in the end.