Scholarships can pay your way through school, but so can an innovative tuition plan. Instead of scrambling for financial aid, students at schools like the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., attend college for free, thanks to their school’s unique approach.

Before taking on a student loan, check out these cash-saving tuition strategies.

Work colleges

Throw out the FAFSA and get ready to punch the clock. Students who attend any of the nation’s eight work colleges receive a significant tuition reduction — in some cases, a full-tuition scholarship — in exchange for part-time labor.

“I work 10 hours a week and over four years, that amounts to about $12,000 in financial aid,” says Aaron Pflug, a senior at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill. “I’m also coming out of college with four years of supervisors’ recommendations and management experience. It’s definitely helped my resume.”

Education on the (really) cheap
  • Work colleges.
  • Graduation guarantee programs.
  • Service academies.
  • Tuition freezes.
  • Fixed-rate tuition plans.
  • Single subject institutions.
  • Loan-free schools.

To reduce the cost of running a campus, work colleges hire students to fill positions ranging from landscapers to office managers. Students get a job tailored to their studies, a beefier resume and a tuition reduction. Those who attend Alice Lloyd College, Berea College in Berea, Ky., College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., or Deep Springs College in Big Pine, Calif., receive full scholarships for their work without filling out financial aid applications.

Graduation guarantee programs

Schools like the University of Nebraska (Kearney, Lincoln and Omaha campuses) and Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., can’t promise sweet scholarships, but they can guarantee that you’ll graduate in four years or the remaining cost is on the house.

“Our students have to declare their (majors) early, meet with their academic advisers every semester, take a certain number of credits and pass their classes,” says Valerie Rennell, Juniata College’s director of student financial planning. “If they do that and the last few classes they need aren’t offered before they graduate, we pay the remaining tuition (at Juniata).”

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C., shows that only about one-third of undergrads actually graduate in four years, and just over half finish in six. The rest attend school part time, take a few semesters off, or pony up for a fifth year to the tune of $6,585, on average, for public school students or $25,143 for private school students, according to the College Board in New York.

While a graduation guarantee doesn’t sound impressive because it doesn’t directly reduce tuition price, it can take care of hidden costs. By completing college on time, students can avoid those extra charges as well as the cost of room, board, travel and living expenses for another year, Rennell says.

Service academies

Look alive, soldier! Students destined for military life can get a leg up on their education and future career by attending a service school. At the nation’s five service academies — the United States Coast Guard Academy; the United States Military Academy at West Point in N.Y.; the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.; the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. — students receive a world-class education and basic military training without paying a dime for tuition or fees for room and board. In exchange, students live the cadet life that includes physical training, military coursework, maintaining uniform and living regulations, and fulfilling summer and weekend duty assignments.

After college, grads fulfill a mandatory, paid service requirement with their military branch that can range from five years to 10 years of active duty, along with a few years of reserve duty that varies depending on the institution.

Tuition freezes

While tuition at state-funded schools skyrockets, undergrads attending Maryland or Kansas public institutions won’t sweat it.

“We’ve gone from being about the fifth most expensive university system to being 20th because we’ve frozen tuition for the past four years,” says Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, an organization that oversees 13 state-funded schools. “Over four years, (a tuition freeze) saves families about $2,000.”

According to FinAid.org, the Web-based guide to student financial aid, tuition increases an average of 8 percent each year. That translates to a $2,374 savings over four years for students attending an in-state public college. While Maryland and Kansas are currently the only two states with public college tuition freezes, several individual institutions including Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., have instituted tuition freezes for the 2009 to 2010 school year.

Fixed-rate tuition plans

Similar to tuition freezes, fixed-rate tuition plans allow incoming students to lock in their current tuition price for up to five years, saving families some inflation costs. FinAid.org reports that over 30 individual institutions throughout the country as well as all Florida and Illinois public colleges currently offer a fixed-rate tuition plan.

FinAid.org also reports that program parameters vary significantly among schools. While some fixed-rate plans only cover tuition expenses, others cover the total cost of attendance. Because fixed-rate plans vary in terms of costs covered as well as how the program operates, some schools force fixed-plan students to lock in their tuition at a rate that’s slightly higher than for the nonfixed tuition price. Others don’t, so it’s difficult to calculate how much families will save.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, says before signing on, families should make sure they can meet any course, hour or grade-point requirements and should ask what happens if the student switches majors, studies abroad or takes a semester off for an internship or cooperative learning program.

“Families need to be absolutely aware of what they’re paying and what the tuition plan’s restrictions are,” he says. “Once you’re locked in, sometimes it’s hard to back out.”

A full list of fixed-rate tuition is available at FinAid.org.

Single subject institutions

“We offer all our students a four-year education that’s worth over $100,000 for free,” says William Murray, director of enrollment management for the Webb Institute in Glen Cove, N.Y. “We can do that because we’re small and we’re supported by a sizable endowment.”

The Webb Institute isn’t for everyone. Accepting just 26 students per year, all of whom major in naval architecture and marine engineering, the school lacks the sprawling campus, endless class choices and on-campus amenities typical of most universities. It also doesn’t have students desperately searching for financial aid.

At subject-specific schools like the Webb Institute, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, City University of New York’s Teachers Academy, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, an engineering, art and architecture college in New York, students give up academic exploration in favor of a targeted degree without tuition costs.

Small, selective and supported by a generous endowment created by donors in that specific field, single subject institutions are designed for focused students who know what they want and won’t settle for anything less.

Loan-free schools

Students stressing over post-graduation loan repayment, fear no longer, at least with this group of schools. To increase economic diversity, 18 institutions throughout the country have eliminated student loans from their financial aid packages, replacing them with scholarships, grants and work-study jobs.

“Once we find out what a student’s financial need is, we meet it 100 percent with scholarships,” says Robin Moscato, director of financial aid for Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., the first no-loan institution in the U.S. “That doesn’t mean that no students borrow, but the average need-based loan for a graduating senior is under $2,500.”

Not bad for a school that charges $34,290 per year in tuition alone. While schools like Princeton, Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., eliminate loans for all students, a wealth of others, including Duke University in Durham, N.C., and Tufts University in Medford, Mass., offer no-loans packages to low-income students only.

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