There has been a lot written about how European universities offer "free" education.   These articles make it sound easy to sign up, get access to the European lifestyle and startup culture, and simply attend class.

Well, my oldest son actually achieved this goal.  He is the only American in my circle to have done this, and as far as I know, he did not see any other Americans in his class. 

That's because as open as the system is, getting in is very hard to do.  And I think much of the difficulty lies in the differences between the German admissions process and our own, which I'll go through briefly.

First, here's our backstory:

Our family has always been interested in languages.  I am crazy about French, and have done business in Spanish and took Russian and love Japanese...So, correction:  I guess I influenced our kids to take a language.  They complied, but were very, very  careful to find a language that didn't yet interest me.  That was German.

When our son was 16, he was accepted to the famous Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, a wonderful post-war program funded by the US and German governments to facilitate personal ties at the high school level.  The application process to CBYX, as it is known, is itself rigorous, layered with applications, references, and interviews.  

He threw himself into German language and family life.  Oh, and his grades improved.  He went away to Germany thinking that ice hockey was life,  and school was just optional.  He came back wanting to show me how neat--that is, how orderly--his calculus homework was.  It was clear he had adopted some of the cultural aspects of Germany, in addition to the language.  

Orderly? I admit there was a moment when I thought, 'what the hell have you done with my kid?'  But of course, he learned an important life lesson, and also learned how to accommodate a new culture.

When he decided to apply to German engineering school, he had to pass a number of difficult, formal requirements:

  • Language. You need to take a formal language fluency test, called the TestDaF.  It measures proficiency in speaking, reading, writing and comprehension and rates them from basic to mastery.  Only the mastery level is eligible to attend university.  He did well, because he had already studied in a German academic high school for a year.  That strikes me as the standard of preparation:  a minimum of a year of intense study.  Putting it another way, doing OK in German 4 ain't gonna cut it.
  • Grades and Tests.  Germany will accept US scores for the SAT and ACT, but you need top scores, good grades and/or evidence of good Advanced Placement scores.  No GED's, and the Germans emphasize "continuous attendance" from grades 9 through 12.  Continuous attendance is a relative term. They apparently do not find out when you cut period three Algebra to go for pancakes with your buddies.
  • A Visa.  This is not easy.  The government requires original birth certificates, evidence of a lack of a police record, and certified transcripts.  These must be translated by a certified translator.  Oh, and you also need to submit evidence that you have minimum financial resources of about 700 Euros a month.  Foreigners do not work their way through college in Germany--for fear of disrupting the local labor market-- although paid internships may be allowed. 

Outside of the the University application itself, the paperwork was a huge challenge.  By the time he finished the process, my son had a four inch folder of correspondence, stamped and certified documents, translations and emails to various officials.  And because much of the process is conducted in German, only he--not his German-poor parents-- could complete the forms and negotiate the bureaucracy.

The process of applying to Technical University of Munich--a world-class engineering school, to which my son matriculated and eventually graduated--requires focus and persistence.

At first, I was prepared to deride the admissions system as a bureaucratic remnant of an old-world point of view.  But, seeing my son's joy at his time in Germany, and considering the friends gained and skills learned, I changed my mind.

Now I see it as a small step for those determined to make the world a small and manageable place.