Tuition costs are higher than ever, and students are feeling the impact of inflated tuition and fees as they finance their degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average tuition and fees for the 2020-21 academic year were 20 percent higher than they were in 2010-11, after accounting for inflation.
To relieve some of the financial strain, some schools and states now offer some form of tuition-free college. Tuition-free college is not the same as free college; there are still expenses included with attending school, like room, board and associated fees. However, these programs can make a degree much more affordable.
What is tuition-free college?
Tuition-free college programs cover the cost of the courses for students, substantially reducing the total costs of attendance for those who qualify. These programs are generally funded on a state- or county-wide basis. Most of them are “last-dollar” programs, meaning that they cover the remaining tuition costs after scholarships and grants have been applied.
There are also “promise programs” that fund two years of community college at qualifying schools; however, as with last-dollar programs, students are still responsible for shouldering the additional costs associated with earning a degree.
Depending on the program, there may be qualifications that students must meet to take advantage of the tuition-free programs. For example, most states require students to graduate from an in-state high school and enroll full time to be eligible for the program. Schools may also have eligibility stipulations of their own and base the programs on factors like academic performance or financial need.
States with free college programs
According to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, there are 32 U.S. states that offer free college programs.
Free 4-year college programs
Free 2-year college programs
How to make college more affordable
There are plenty of ways to make the cost of earning a degree more affordable if you don’t qualify for tuition-free college or if you need help paying for expenses beyond tuition.
Apply for need-based financial aid
Students can apply for need-based financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Need-based financial aid is disbursed through the federal government and given to families based on their expected family contribution (EFC), or an estimate of the family’s total financial resources.
Take advantage of private scholarships
There are thousands of private scholarships offered year-round, which can be need-based or merit-based. Often these scholarships are worth a low dollar amount, but there’s no limit to the amount that you can apply for.
To find unique scholarship opportunities, students should use a scholarship search engine and filter based on their experiences and interests. Many private organizations offer scholarships for niche hobbies or affiliations.
Apply for student loans
Students can apply for both federal and private student loans to help finance the cost of their degree. Federal loans, available through the FAFSA, should come first. Interest rates are the same for all borrowers, and borrowers can access unique protections and benefits.
Private student loans are offered by private lenders, banks and credit unions. Interest rates are based on the financial status of the borrower, meaning these loans are often more expensive than federal student loans. However, they’re useful if you’ve met your federal student loan limits.
Enroll in AP courses or early college programs
High school students can take advantage of college credit courses and programs while in high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP) classes or early college programs. These reduce the number of credits you have to pay for while enrolled in college, since those credits will be transferred from your high school.
These classes are typically much more demanding than traditional high school courses, and it’s possible that credits won’t transfer to every college. If you’re on the fence, speak with your high school advisor or contact the admissions offices of any colleges you’re considering.
Find a flexible part-time job
College and high school students can apply for part-time jobs to help bolster savings and emergency funds, or to help pay for things like books and supplies. High school students should place all of their earnings into a separate high-yield savings account to prepare for college costs, and current college students can use their earnings to create a realistic budget each semester.
The bottom line
Whether it’s for a four-year degree or two-year certification program, free tuition could save students thousands of dollars each academic year and make obtaining a higher education more equitable. As tuition prices rise, students should do their research and look into everything they can to lower the cost of their education, especially when it comes to state and institutional tuition-free college programs. In almost all cases, these free tuition programs require a FAFSA, so it’s critical to stay on top of deadlines and submit your application as you can.