Updated: Nov 2
Whenever I talk to international students or co-workers about our experiences as students, it becomes obvious that going to university has many different implications - not only in terms of taught science and program organization but especially regarding personal finances. Regarding the latter, I personally experienced the income- or wealth-independent ability to study in Germany.
So let's talk about finances as a BSc and MSc student from a low-income family in Germany.
When I finished school in the summer of 2005, I was sure I wanted to study. Both my parents were fully supportive when it came to me choosing to go to university. Eventually, I decided to enroll in the Bachelor program in Materials Science at RWTH Aachen University in North Rhine-Westphalia.
My parents had a small business and not a lot of income. Nevertheless, I was not worried about the financial consequences of studying which might be quite different from students in the US, for example. The reason why going to university is relatively independent of one's family's wealth in Germany is based on something unbelievably great: "BAföG".
BAföG is Germany's Federal Training Assistance Act for students at secondary schools and universities in Germany. It is not only available to Germans but can also be granted to foreigners who have prospects of remaining in Germany.
Half of BAföG is provided as a grant, half of it has to be paid back as an interest-free loan after graduation. Additionally, the government set an upper limit of 10.000 Euro total repayment, and very good grades as well as early repayment allow for substantial reductions.
To apply, one has to be transparent about the family income. For example, if one is the only child at home and both parents are alive (a bit simplified), less than about 30.000 Euro household income qualify for the maximum amount of BAföG. However, each situation is different, and thus, checking your eligibility seems always worth it (www.bafög.de). About a quarter of the German students receive at least some financial support from BAföG during their studies.
For me personally at that time (fall 2005), it meant I was granted about 450 Euro every month. By adding the monthly child benefit my parents received from the government, I had about 630 Euro available per month for all costs of living, books, and other materials for studying. Since I found a room in the dorms, I only had to pay very little rent (around 130 Euro/month). However, in Aachen dorms are only available for about 10% of all students due to limited capacity.
In Germany, universities demand a semester fee which was about 200 Euro in Aachen. This included full access to university sports and free bus rides around the town. Later, the fee was increased since a train pass for the entire state was added. This was especially helpful for students who had their families in the state and could go back home without additional costs.
In summer 2007, North Rhine-Westphalia and most other states in Germany levied tuition fees of 500 Euro per semester. After controversies, the states gave up on tuition fees for the fall term in 2011. Thus, I had to pay tuition fees for most of my studies. However, the fact that most public universities do not require students to pay tuition, makes studying affordable, and does not lead to debts among academics. To me, this is one of the great benefits of the German higher education system which allows for some level of equality.
It has to be noted that (non-EU) foreigners might have to pay tuition in Germany.
To have more financial flexibility, I started working as a teaching assistant (TA) in my second year of studies. RWTH Aachen paid a bit more than te than minimum wage. Thus, working about 10 hours per week resulted in about 400 Euro added monthly income. It also helped me a lot to understand the taught topics better and to grow my network. Therefore, I would highly recommend applying for a TA job if possible.
Since my experiences are from the first decade of this century, I looked up the most recent numbers which are summarized in the diagram below. Semester fee and the TA salary refer to RWTH Aachen University and North Rhine-Westphalia, respectively.
Overall, I think that the relatively large child benefit and BAföG in Germany make higher education accessible for young adults from low-income families. While it is still much less likely to study when one comes from a non-academic family, money seems not to be a major hindrance. However, students from medium-income families who are just not eligible for BAföG anymore might experience financial issues. Not making the cut due to an income slightly above the threshold does not mean that these families can support their kids with 735 Euro/month (current max. BAföG).
Furthermore, every semester exceeding the minimum program duration is not supported by BAföG. Thus, the pressure to succeed is high, especially when no financial resources to fall back on are available.
I did not touch on scholarships here but I wrote a dedicated blog entry about my experiences with scholarships (LINK).
For further information on BAföG, I recommend the following resources:
The German Ministry of Education and Research on BAföG: https://www.bmbf.de/en/the-german-federal-training-assistance-act-bafog-provides-educational-opportunities-2010.html
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) on costs for studying and living: https://www.daad.de/en/study-and-research-in-germany/plan-your-studies/costs-of-education-and-living/
The website "Studying in Germany" with detailed information for foreign students, including finances: https://www.studying-in-germany.org/financing-your-studies-in-germany/
"Financial Student Aid and Enrollment in Higher Education: New Evidence from Germany" by Viktor Steiner and Katharina Wrohlich in Scand. J. of Economics: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9442.2011.01669.x?casa_token=DI1O_kxNZl0AAAAA%3AbX7nLQ1r_cki2aZXSiAbscJBftylvFYut5cEWOr95Qr_30ThKGdHHB5570Rj4sCIKmgc6n_RdcGObmY