Key takeaways

  • If you can’t afford to pay for college, there are many options available if you want to attend college for free.
  • Consider applying for scholarships and grants to cover the cost of tuition.
  • You may be able to find future employers who will pay for your college through military programs or teaching programs, for example.
  • There are some colleges and states offering programs with free tuition.

Many expenses are on the rise, but none quite like the cost of a college education. The average cost of college has more than doubled in the twenty-first century, according to the Educational Data Initiative. The average in-state student attending a public college spends $26,027 per academic year; the average annual cost at a private university is more than double that figure, a staggering $55,840.

There are many costs to consider when pursuing higher education: tuition, fees, books, technology and supplies. But expenses like room and board can run up the tab even further– and once students factor in the costs of transportation and personal expenses, the price tag can become overwhelming.

Luckily, prospective students have options when it comes to offsetting the steep cost of higher education. A creative combination of scholarships, grant funding, work-study programs, and tuition-free degree programs may even equate to a low-cost or “free” option.

1. Apply for grants and scholarships

There are thousands of programs, institutions, companies and organizations that give away free money. In general, grants are based on need, while scholarships are based on academic, artistic or athletic merit.

You can apply for grants and scholarships at the federal and school level by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Ask your high school guidance counselor or college financial aid office if you’re eligible for any local programs or institution-specific scholarships.

Scholarship search engines are an easy way to find scholarships outside of your college offerings. You can customize your search based on any number of factors, including:

  • Race.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Gender.
  • Financial need.
  • Potential major.
  • Military affiliation.
  • Religion.
  • Physical disabilities.

The earlier you start your search, the more free money you can qualify for. Many grants and scholarships are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so the sooner you apply, the more money you can score.

2. Enlist in the military

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. Scholarships are also available through local Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs.

Offered at more than 1,700 colleges and universities in the U.S., the ROTC program provides participants a paid college education and guaranteed post-college career in exchange for committing to serve in the military after graduation.

If you’ve served on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, you may also qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which helps cover the cost of in-state tuition and fees and provides an allowance for living expenses, books and supplies. Those who qualify for the program’s maximum benefit will have the full cost of public in-state tuition and fees covered for up to 48 months. There are funding limits for private and foreign schools.

AmeriCorps is another national service organization that offers education awards in exchange for community work. The award amount varies among AmeriCorps programs, but a person cannot earn “more than the aggregate value of two full-time national service education awards.” The full education award is equal to the maximum Pell Grant value for that year. Members also receive a living stipend while serving in the program.

3. Work for the school

Many schools offer free or reduced tuition for employees and staff of the school. In addition, if a student’s parent works for a college, a full or partial waiver may be available for that student. The terms vary by the institution since there’s no minimum standard, but many full-time workers qualify for tuition-free classes. 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.”

Some schools also offer waivers for Native American students, though this policy varies by institution. To find out what a school offers, contact the financial aid office.

5. Have your employer pick up the costs

A long list of companies offer tuition reimbursement, including Chegg, Google and Hulu. Ask your employer if they’re willing to provide full or partial tuition reimbursement. Up to $5,250 in tuition reimbursement annually is tax-free for employees and employers.

If you’ve already taken out student loans, many employers pay off all or part of employees’ student loans. You may be able to retroactively get help with your college tuition by searching out employers with student loan repayment programs.

6. Choose an in-demand career

Another great way to attend college for free is to find a high-need field of study. If you’re trying to cut the cost of college, this is something to consider before you even enroll.

Math, science, nursing, teaching and social work are all subjects that colleges may incentivize through scholarships. There are additional opportunities available through organizations like Teach for America and the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program, and you can earn a TEACH Grant of up to $4,000 per year in exchange for a commitment to teach at a low-income school or educational service agency for four of the first eight years after graduation.

7. Attend a work college

A work college is another way to get a free or substantially discounted college education. These schools, which are generally four-year liberal arts institutions, provide educational opportunities as well as valuable work experience.

Be aware that all students must participate in a comprehensive work-learning service for all four years of enrollment. In other words, all resident students have jobs. Often the jobs are located on campus, but off-campus jobs are also possible. Specific program details vary by college.

All participating work colleges are approved and supervised by the U.S. Department of Education and are required to meet specific federal standards.

8. Choose a school that pays you

Some schools will pay you to focus your studies on a single subject which they select. Schools like 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.

However, it’s important to think through the decision before you commit to this course. You don’t want to get caught up in taking free college courses only to graduate and realize that you’re no longer interested in the subject.

9. Attend a community college with a free tuition program

There are many community colleges that now offer free tuition programs; Tennessee, Oregon, California, New York and Washington are all examples of states that have implemented some version of free community college.

For many states, you have to graduate from an in-state high school and enroll full time to qualify for the free tuition program. You may also have to commit to staying in the state for several years after graduation. Even though tuition will be free, you may still have to pay for textbooks, supplies and room and board.

10. Look into online tuition-free degree programs

Community colleges aren’t the only schools that offer tuition-free programs. Some employers provide free college courses to employees. For example, Starbucks has partnered with Arizona State University (ASU) to provide workers full tuition for online programs and degrees.

The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and University of the People are two schools that offer online tuition-free programs. You can do a Google search for more online tuition-free degrees, which may be especially suited for students who want to continue living at home.

What to do if you can’t go to college for free

If you’ve done everything you can to go to college for free and still have to pay for some of it, you can use student loans to cover the financial gaps.

Whether you take out federal or private student loans, you should borrow only as much as you need. Every dollar you borrow is a dollar you must pay back with interest. The more you borrow now, the more you’ll end up paying back after you leave school.

Federal student loans are available when you complete the FAFSA. This option includes flexible repayment terms, like income-driven repayment plans, forgiveness options and long deferment and forbearance periods.

If you’re still struggling to pay for college and have maxed out the federal loan limit, you might need private student loans, which can have high interest rates and fewer borrower protections. If this is the case, it’s important to shop around with a few lenders before applying for your student loan in order to keep your costs as low as possible.

The bottom line

While getting a free college education is possible, it will require a lot of time, effort and commitment. Start your search early and apply to as many scholarships, grants and assistance programs as possible. If you cast a wide net, you have the best chance of attending college for free. If you still need to fill in the gaps, taking out a student loan can get you the rest of the way.