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Grants and scholarships
Financial aid -- the traditional way of eliminating college costs -- is still available. To increase the odds of landing grants and scholarships, Doug Hewitt, co-author of "Free College Resource Book," advises students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and then focus on local prizes.
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"There are more scholarships you'll qualify for in your home state than nationally," says Hewitt. "Look at local organizations and talk to your high school (guidance) counselor."
Start early, too. While students usually don't start scholarship hunting until senior year, awards are available for all high school grade levels.
Give service to your country
The U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force, Military, Merchant Marine and Naval Academies offer free rides to students who serve after college, but cash is also available through ROTC programs closer to home.
Service requirements for ROTC programs vary, but all require students to complete military training on campus and commit to up to 12 years, depending on the branch of service. Students leave with training, a guaranteed job and opportunities for more free education.
AmeriCorps, a national service organization that offers education awards in exchange for community work, provides an award of up to $5,730 for each full year of service. Maximum years of service vary among AmeriCorps programs. Members also receive a living stipend while serving in the program.
Work for the school
Schools charge students tuition, but their employees often can get a free education. "This is a great option, especially for older students with job experience," says Reyna Gobel, author of "CliffsNotes Graduation Debt." "If you're 18, you might not qualify for a job that provides (tuition) benefits."
Schools typically provide benefits for full-time workers and sometimes require a certain level of experience, Gobel says. Future students can find out about their school's policy by calling the admissions office.
Waive your costs
Some students can get a free pass based on academic performance or other factors.
"Tuition waivers may be available for (current or former) military and talented students," says Manuel Fabriquer, founder of College Planning ABC, a financial aid and admissions counseling firm in San Jose, California. "Even families that have substantial income can get tuition waivers if (the student) has the right test scores."
The North American Council on Adoptable Children in St. Paul, Minnesota, reports that Connecticut, Kentucky, Virginia, Maine, Massachusetts, Texas, Florida and Maryland offer waivers at certain public schools for adopted and foster care children.
Other schools offer waivers for Native American students, senior citizens and dislocated workers. To find out what your school offers, call the financial aid office.
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Become an apprentice
Apprenticeships can pay for school, provide a post-college job and offer a salary, too. Apprenticeship programs take 1-6 years, are available in more than 1,000 occupations and require participants to complete at least 2,000 hours of field work annually, according to the Department of Labor.
In exchange, the sponsoring employer pays for college or technical training and provides a salary. A list of available programs is available at the ApprenticeshipUSA website.
Have your employer pick up the costs
Most employers offer help with higher education costs. A 2016 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management shows 55% of employers offer undergraduate educational assistance and 52% help with the cost of graduate programs.
The maximum reimbursement averages about $4,400, the society says.
"With employee reimbursement, you have to study in your field," says Carol Stewart, author of "Looking for Scholarships." "If you're thinking about being a film producer, I would be surprised if an engineering firm paid for that." To find out if your company offers reimbursement, talk to your human resources director.
Be in demand
Another way students can avoid taking on debt is by entering a high-needs field. Individual schools offer incentives to students in math, science, nursing, teaching and social work, and additional opportunities are available through national organizations such as Teach for America, the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program and the National Institutes of Health.
The nursing program at the University of Portland in Oregon has offered scholarships covering approximately 80% of the final 2 years of undergraduate study, if students sign a 3-year employment contract with the local health system, Fabriquer says. "There are similar programs in (high-needs) fields across the country," he adds.
Attend a work college
Students can bypass scholarship applications by enrolling in what's called a work college. Designed to lower college costs and provide job experience, the nation's 8 work colleges require all students to work, usually 15 to 20 hours per week and sometimes while school isn't in session. In exchange, they receive free or substantially reduced tuition.
According to the Work Colleges Consortium in Berea, Kentucky, students work in fields ranging from landscaping to hospitality, can change jobs once per year (sometimes more), and leave campus with their degree and up to 4 years of work experience.
Choose a school that pays you
Focus on a single subject, and you could attend school for free. Schools such as the Webb Institute and the Curtis Institute of Music offer a select range of academic programs and pick up the tuition cost for every student.
"That's fine if you have no doubts about what you want to do," says author Gobel. "The worst scenario is graduating, realizing you don't want to do that and having to go back."
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