10 ways to attend college for free

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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 find ways to attend college for free, you may apply for scholarships, work for your school, find tuition-free degree programs and more.

How much college may cost you

The cost of college depends largely on the school you choose to attend. There’s a big difference between the cost of a local community college, for instance, and a state school or a private school.

According to the College Board, the average tuition and fees in the 2020-21 school year was $37,650 at private nonprofit four-year colleges, $10,560 at in-state public four-year colleges and $27,020 at out-of-state public four-year colleges. The average tuition and fees for a public two-year college, meanwhile, was $3,770.

What factors into the cost of your college tuition

There are several variables that impact what you’ll pay for college, including:

  • Tuition and fees.
  • Room and board.
  • Books.
  • Supplies and equipment.
  • Transportation.
  • Miscellaneous expenses.

Where you attend college also matters. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), you can expect to pay at least double to attend a private four-year institution compared to a public one. Two-year schools are even cheaper.

You can keep costs low by attending a school close to home, living off-campus with your family or roommates or attending a community college for your first two years of school. Any aid you receive in the form of grants, scholarships and tuition waivers will also decrease your overall costs.

How to attend college for free

Whether you rack up scholarships and grants or get work-study programs, there are plenty of ways to avoid paying much — if anything at all — to attend college.

  1. Apply for grants and scholarships.
  2. Serve your country.
  3. Work for the school.
  4. Waive your costs.
  5. Have your employer pick up the costs.
  6. Be in demand.
  7. Attend a work college.
  8. Choose a school that pays you.
  9. Attend a community college with a free tuition program.
  10. Look into online tuition-free degree programs.

1. Apply for grants and scholarships

There are thousands of programs, institutions, companies and organizations that give away free money. Grants are based on need, while scholarships are based on merit (academic and athletic).

You can apply for grants and scholarships at the federal level when you complete your FAFSA, ask your high school guidance counselor if you’re eligible for any local programs or apply for scholarships offered by specific colleges. To find independent scholarships, you may also use online tools like Scholarships.com, Fastweb and the College Board’s scholarship search. You can narrow your search based on any number of factors, including but not limited to:

  • 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, but cash is 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 post-college career to participants in exchange for committing to serve in the military after graduation.

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

If you’ve served on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, you may also qualify for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which helps cover the cost of in-state tuition and fees and also 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.

3. Work for the school

Many schools offer free tuition for employees and staff of the school. The terms vary by the institution, since there’s no minimum standard, but many full-time workers may 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.”

In addition, if a student’s parent works for a college, a full or partial waiver may be available. Some schools also offer waivers for Native American students, though this policy varies by school. To find out what a school offers, call the financial aid office.

5. Have your employer pick up the costs

There are loads of companies that will pick up your college tab, including Disney, Starbucks and Papa John’s. Many others offer some form of tuition reimbursement up to a certain amount.

Even lesser-known companies might pay your way through college. Ask your employer if they’re willing to provide tuition reimbursement or pay for costs up to a certain amount to help offset your total college costs. Your employer is investing in your education while you’re working to better yourself potentially for that company. Plus, up to $5,250 in tuition reimbursement each year is tax-free for both employees and employers.

6. 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? If you’re trying to cut the cost of college, ask yourself this before you even enroll.

Generally, schools will offer incentives to anyone focusing their studies on math, science, nursing, teaching and social work. 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 for four of the first eight years after graduation.

7. Attend a work college

A work college is another way to get a free college education or, at the very least, substantially discounted tuition. Just as the name suggests, these colleges, which are generally four-year liberal arts institutions, provide educational opportunities as well as valuable work experience.

But be aware, 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 on campus, but sometimes the employment may be off campus. 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 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.

However, it’s important to think through the decision before you commit to this course. You don’t want to find yourself graduating from such a program and realizing that you’re not interested in pursuing a career in what you’ve just studied.

9. Attend a community college with a free tuition program

There are many community colleges that now offer free tuition programs. The Tennessee Promise Program was the first tuition-free program in the U.S. Other states, like Oregon, California, New York and Washington, have implemented similar programs.

Each state has its own standards for eligibility. Some have “last-dollar programs,” which cover the cost of tuition and fees only after other aid has been applied; others have “first-dollar programs,” which give the student funds before federal and state grant aid is taken into account. Last-dollar programs are becoming more common than first-dollar programs. For many states, you may have to graduate from a high school in the state and enroll full time to qualify for the free tuition program. Along with that, there are some things you might still have to pay for, like textbooks and supplies.

10. Look into online tuition-free degree programs

Community colleges aren’t the only ones to offer tuition-free programs. There are dozens of online programs that are tuition-free. Starbucks, for instance, has a partnership 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 a couple of colleges that also offer online tuition-free programs, but they aren’t the only ones. You may qualify for tuition-free schools based on where you live, even if you enroll in online-only classes.

What if I have to take out loans?

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

Whether you borrow federal or private student loans, take out only what you need. A student loan is money that you must repay with interest. The more you borrow now, the more you’ll end up paying back after you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment.

Federal student loans are available when you complete your FAFSA and offer flexible repayment terms, like income-driven repayment plans, forgiveness options and deferment and forbearance. If you’re still struggling to pay for college, you might need private student loans, which have low interest rates but fewer protections.

To keep your costs as low as possible, shop around with a few lenders before applying for your student loan.

The bottom line

While there are lots of ways to get a free college education, you should be ready to put in the time and effort required. Start your search early and apply to as many scholarships, grants and work programs as you can find. If you cast a wide net, you have the best chance of attending college for free. If you need to fill in the gaps, a student loan could help you achieve your education.

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