The College Tuition Hack That Apparently Doesn’t Work

College tuition, at least in the United States, is something that keeps parents of college-aged kids up at night. There are a handful of ways to defray the costs — you can encourage (or require) your kids to choose a more affordable school, there are all sorts of merit- and need-based grants, the kid can enter a work-study program, and of course, there are loans. You can also get some of the credits you need to graduate in less expensive ways — credits from high school Advanced Placement classes and community college or summer classes may be available to some students.

Or you can just have some friends take some classes for you. Maybe.

The University of Applied Sciences for Economics and Management in Essen, Germany — better known as FOM — is a private university with an enrollment north of 40,000 students. As of 2012, the university offered both bachelors and masters degrees in business, which for a German student named Marcel Pohl, was perfect — he wanted to be an investment banker, and earning an MBA was a great way to start on that career. And Pohl was willing to work hard to get there quickly. While enrolled at FOM, Pohl was also working at a bank — and he was also taking about three times the course load of a normal student.

Pohl, not being a wizard, didn’t have a time turner to help him triple up on his courseload, though — he just had friends. In late 2019 or early 2020, he enrolled at FOM in the dual degree program, which required students to take 60 classes over the course of 11 semesters — that is, about five and a half years. Not wanting to spend all that time at school or pay for 11 semesters, Pohl came up with a plan to get that same workload done in only 20 months across three semesters. As The Local (an English-language German publication) shared, “Pohl completed his turbo degree by dividing up all the simultaneous lectures with two friends and then swapping notes.” He only attended a third of the classes on his schedule, sure, but he learned the material regardless. His grades weren’t half-bad, either; he finished his FOM career with the equivalent of a B or B- average.

The school, per Pohl, was aware of his expedited timeline and did not object — at least, not until Pohl stopped taking classes, and therefore, stopped paying the tuition bill. Pohl gladly paid the school for his three semesters as a student, but FOM expected him to pay for all 11, even though he wasn’t actually a student for the final eight semesters. Pohl, understandably, refused. So in July of 2012, FOM sued Pohl for part of the remainder of the fee. Per The Local, “FOM argue[d] that its fees are the total price for the studies, independent of how long the studies last.”

Pohl was shocked, to say the least — as he told the press, “when the lawsuit came, I thought it couldn’t be true. Performance should pay off.” He further pointed out that students who enrolled in the university but didn’t graduate paid only for their time as a student — they didn’t have to pay full price (or get a refund). But the courts disagreed and sided with FOM. Per a follow-up story in The Local, “as a private university, [FOM] charges around €12,000 [$12,600] for a Bachelors degree, paid in monthly installments and around €10,000  [$10,500] for a Masters. They are not, strictly speaking, semester fees, the court said.” 

There was a silver lining for Pohl, though: by the time the lawsuit hit, he was already working at a bank. The students who matriculated with him just two years earlier, though, were still in class.

Bonus fact: Some college students will to go to the library, study all night, and fall asleep in a chair with a book still open. It’s so common that librarians will typically just let the sleeping student continue to doze, rather than telling them to go home. In 2004, a student at New York University named Steven Stanzak took advantage of this — he needed to in order to afford to attend the school. As the BBC reported, “despite receiving $15,000 a year from a scholarship and working 30 hours a week, [Stanzak] could not afford the money for a room on top of his tuition fees.” So he lived in the school library for eight months. When the school found out, they did right by Stanzak, offering him free housing.

From the Archives: The Pride of Georgia Tech: George P. Burdell is probably Georgia Tech’s most famous student — except, he wasn’t a student at all.