West Point Graduation
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With the costs of higher education at an all-time high, the American Dream of a college education can seem like just that — a dream. However, the reality is that there are lots of things a prospective student can do to help offset the high costs of higher education. If you’re trying to figure out how to go to college for free, we have some advice that might help you on your way. We’ve covered a wide range of options from how to get free tuition through a grant to various service opportunities.

Take a look at these and other ways you might be able to score a free college education.

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1. 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.”

And remember to start your search early. You won’t be the only person wondering how to go to college for free and scholarships can be limited to a first come, first served basis. You should also keep in mind that you don’t need to wait for your senior year to start hunting for scholarships. There are grants and awards available at all high school grade levels.

2. Give service to your country

The U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force, Military (West Point), Merchant Marine and Naval academies offer free college opportunities 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.

3. 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.

4. 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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5. Become an apprentice

An apprenticeship is another solid option when you’re determining how to get free tuition. They can also open you up to job opportunities post-college.

Overall, your average apprenticeship program will take 1-6 years. You will probably be required to put in that time along with at least 2,000 hours of field work annually. The good news is that there are apprenticeships in more than 1,000 occupations, which can give you more options.

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.

6. Have your employer pick up the costs

Another way you might receive a free college education is through your employer. Often given in the form of an employee reimbursement, there are plenty of employers that can help curb the cost of higher education.

“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.

7. Be in demand

Another great way to find out how to go to college for free is to determine if your field of study is “high-needs.” Will your studies result in a career that’s high in demand? Ask yourself this before you even enroll if you’re trying to cut the cost of college.

Generally, schools will offer incentives to anyone focusing their studies on math, science, nursing, teaching, and social work. There are also additional opportunities available through organizations like 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.

8. Attend a work college

A work college is another way to get free college education or, at the very least, substantially discounted tuition. Just like the name suggests, these colleges provide educational opportunities as well as valuable work experience. Just be aware that you will usually be required to work part-time (15 to 20 hours per week).

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.

9. Choose a school that pays you

Last on our list of ways on how to get free tuition, and probably the riskiest. There are, indeed, schools that will pay you to focus your studies in a single subject (which they dictate). 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. Just think long and hard about your decision before you commit to this course.

“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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Free college, hard work

While there are lots of ways you can get a free college education, you should be ready to put in the time and effort required. There are no shortcuts as to how to get free tuition. You will, also, not be the only person trying to find out how to go to college for free. Start your search early and apply to as many scholarships, grants, work programs, etc. that you can find. Cast a wide net and you may just catch the educational opportunity of a lifetime.

HOW TO PAY FOR COLLEGE: Learn more ways you can cover the cost of higher education.