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10 ways to attend college for free

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Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
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Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
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It’s no secret that the cost of higher education has reached an all-time high. However, there are many things a prospective student can do to help offset the steep cost of college. To attend college for free, you can apply for scholarships, work for your school, find tuition-free degree programs and more.

How much does college cost?

Over the past 10 years, the cost of college has been increasing. College Board data shows that in 2011-12, tuition and fees averaged $9,890 at public four-year colleges (in 2021 dollars). In 2021-22, that number was $10,740. The disparity is even greater for private four-year colleges; from 2011-12 to 2021-22, average tuition and fees rose from $33,320 to $38,070.

The cost of college depends largely on the school you choose to attend. Here’s how College Board breaks down average costs for the 2021-22 school year:

Expenses Average cost
Public university tuition $10,740 for in-state students; $27,560 for out-of-state students
Private university tuition $38,070
Room and board $11,950 for public universities; $13,620 for private universities
Books and supplies $1,240
Transportation $1,230 for public universities; $1,060 for private universities
Personal expenses $2,170 for public universities; $1,810 for private universities

How to attend college for free

It’s important to research all the ways you can avoid paying much — if anything — to attend college. Here are the top strategies you can pursue.

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 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 could qualify for. Many grants and scholarships are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so the sooner you apply, the more money you could score.

2. Serve 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. 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 a paid college education and guaranteed postcollege career to participants 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 36 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 school. To find out what a school offers, contact the financial aid office.

5. Have your employer pick up the costs

There’s a long list of companies that 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 each year is tax-free for both employees and employers.

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 not interested in the subject anymore.

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 with full tuition for their online programs and degrees.

The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and Berea College in Kentucky 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.

Will President Biden make college free?

During his campaign, President Biden indicated that making community college tuition-free for all Americans was a top priority. Unfortunately, the president was forced to cut the proposal from his spending bill, citing some pushback from moderate Democratic senators.

Now it’s unclear what the path toward nationwide tuition-free community college would look like — especially if the Republicans take back one or both chambers of Congress during the 2022 midterms.

What if I take out student loans?

If you’ve done everything you can to go to college for free and you 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 that you borrow is a dollar you have to pay back with interest. The more you borrow now, the more you’ll end up paying back after you leave school. While Biden suggested in his campaign that he would like to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt per borrower, there are no official plans in place — so you should plan on paying back your entire balance.

Federal student loans are available when you complete the FAFSA. They include 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 other 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.

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