With costs of college growing over time, most students use a combination of financial aid options to cover the cost of attendance. Financial aid includes scholarships, grants, and student loans, but in certain cases, it also includes a tuition waiver.

Tuition waivers are a part of a financial aid package where the college or university waives part or all of your tuition costs, even if you still owe costs like fees and room and board. If you have a tuition waiver available, you will pay less total for your education and have to rely less on student loans to pay for college.

Tuition waiver qualifications include having a low expected family contribution (EFC) as well as being from particular demographics, including having grown up in foster care or being a current employee or child of an employee at a college or university. Tuition waivers can be contingent on particular grade point averages or good academic standing.

How to get a tuition waiver

Tuition waivers are typically institution-specific, so you’ll want to check on your options based on the school or schools you are considering. Here are some of the ways people qualify for tuition waivers and receive them.

Employment or parental employment

One of the perks offered to employees of many college and university systems is reduced or free tuition for both the employee and sometimes the child of the employee. For instance, some small liberal arts colleges and universities are part of a group of schools that collectively agree to offer tuition waivers to the children of all the employees of the whole group of schools, provided they meet certain requirements.

If you are employed at a college or university in a full-time, salaried role, you might be able to get a waiver to attend that school part time. You could potentially earn a degree only with classes taken while working full time and studying part time.

Finally, some states offer certain employees, such as firefighters, the opportunity to have a tuition waiver to encourage professional development and growth.

Financial hardship on the FAFSA

When you answer questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, you may fall into a category under which your school offers discounted tuition through a tuition waiver.

When combined with any private scholarships or federal grants you receive, a tuition waiver may have a positive impact on your ability to afford to attend college.

Waiver programs connected to native status or where you live

Many state schools offer in-state tuition, which is effectively a waiver of the difference between that number and out-of-state tuition. However, for bordering states, some states will make an exception and offer in-state tuition, a waiver, to qualified applicants.

Many states offer reduced tuition in the form of a waiver to Native American students.

Non-traditional students or senior citizens

If you’re a non-traditional student who didn’t attend college or university as a young adult, you may qualify for tuition waivers associated with being a non-traditional-aged student or if you’re a senior citizen.

Some colleges offer a series of low-cost classes specifically for the local senior citizen community. If your particular college or university doesn’t offer these tuition waivers, check local community colleges as well. Some states offer one or more classes worth of tuition waivers per semester.

Explore programs for veterans and their dependents

Some public university systems, like colleges and universities in California, offer dependents of military veterans a tuition waiver, while other college systems like the University of Connecticut offer tuition waivers for members of the National Guard who also live in state.

While each system of universities and colleges has different qualifying and final tuition waiver amounts, it’s worth exploring if you are either the dependent of a veteran or a veteran yourself.

Tuition waivers versus other types of financial aid

The difference between a tuition waiver and a scholarship, in general, has to do with the source of the funds.

Because tuition waivers are generally given by the college or university, waivers essentially reduce the price for the receiver. Scholarships are a larger category that have to do with someone paying your tuition. For instance, if your local civic organization offers a $2000 scholarship, they will pay that amount to the school of the winning student. That much of the tuition is paid, but the price of tuition wasn’t affected.

Scholarships and grants

As mentioned above, scholarships and grants are typically sources of funding either endowed with the college or university or paid for by a civic organization or the government.

For instance, many students who complete the FAFSA and have a low or $0 expected family contribution will qualify for Pell Grants, a funding source that pays your costs at college directly, either in whole or in part.

At colleges, there may be a pool of money donated by alumni that is used to offer merit-based (focused on your prior preparation, achievements, and aptitude) or need-based (focused on your and your family’s ability to pay for college) scholarships.

Subsidized loans

Another form of student aid is the opportunity to take out loans with preferred terms through loan providers associated with the federal government.

One of the major advantages of these loans is that they do not begin accruing interest until you finish school, and there are opportunities to defer payment on these loans. There is also a grace period after you graduate, usually six months, when you can be focused on finding a job that will help you pay off your loans, rather than hitting you with a bill the month you graduate.

Long-term, these loans often cost the borrower less in total, even if they come with the same interest rate.

Unsubsidized Loans

Unsubsidized loans are still student loans, but they begin accruing interest immediately, even if you are a student. It’s important to understand the terms of the loans and estimate what kinds of payments you’re likely to have after college, particularly if a large part of your available aid package is unsubsidized loans.

The bottom line

While tuition waivers aren’t the only way to pay for college, they are an excellent tool in your toolbox and can reduce both your overall cost to attend and how many student loans you need to complete a degree. Explore colleges and universities where you qualify for partial or full tuition waivers first because finding an affordable education is a wise way to set yourself up for success after college.

Frequently asked questions

  • The difference is that a scholarship pays part of your tuition while a tuition waiver just cuts the base price of your tuition (maybe even down to $0 tuition!). Scholarships can come from a variety of sources, while most tuition waivers are offered through the financial aid office at a given college or university system.
  • Tuition waivers are a form of financial aid, though less often recognized than the most common financial aid forms of scholarships, grants, and student loans.
  • Most tuition waivers won’t require a separate application beyond your standard application to the college or university and your application for student aid (FAFSA and any additional details requested by specific schools). You’ll see on your financial aid award letter if you’ve been awarded a tuition waiver.
  • Paying for a traditional 4-year college degree is often done through a combination of scholarship funding, grants, student loans, work-study and working outside-of-college jobs. If you aren’t committed to attending school full-time, it’s possible to pay for coursework part-time while working a full-time job.
  • Typically, you wouldn’t appeal a tuition waiver – you either qualify for it or not. For competitive tuition waivers, there are simply more applicants than there are waivers available, and for need-based or status-based waivers, you either qualify or don’t.