8 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 higher education.

If you’re trying to figure out how to go to college for free, this article covers a range of options, from grants to service opportunities. Take a look at these and other ways you might be able to score a free college education.

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 College Board, the average tuition and fees in the 2019-20 school year was $36,880 at private nonprofit four-year colleges, $10,440 at an in-state public four-year college and $26,820 at an out-of-state public four-year college. The average tuition and fees for a public two-year college, meanwhile, was $3,730.

“Many people think that college costs $70,000 or more a year because that’s the cost of the most expensive college,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com. “But, only 0.2 percent of colleges charge tuition and fees of $60,000 or more and 0.6 percent of private, non-profit colleges. An in-state, public four-year college is much less expensive. A community college is even cheaper.”

What factors into the cost of your college tuition

There are several variables that impact what you’ll pay for college, including tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, equipment, transportation and miscellaneous expenses.

“College costs are affected by the type of college you attend, public versus private, and whether the public college is in-state or out-of-state. Your least expensive option will usually be an in-state, public college,” explains Kantrowitz.

Any aid you receive in the form of grants, scholarships and tuition waivers will decrease your overall costs.

Living off campus is another way to save money, particularly if you find a living situation with roommates who can split costs.

How to attend college for free

If you’re industrious, there are many ways to potentially offset the cost of a college education, ranging from scholarships and grants to work-study programs and employer-funded learning. Here’s a detailed look at some of the options worth investigating.

  1. Apply for grants and scholarships.
  2. Give service to 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.

1. Apply for grants and scholarships

Financial aid — the traditional way of eliminating college costs — is still available. To increase the odds of landing grants and scholarships, it’s always a good idea for students to apply for federal aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

You can also apply for school-specific scholarships. To increase your odds of landing some scholarship money, apply to a few safety schools — colleges where your grades or test scores (or both) are well above average.

“Discounts are fairly easy to come by,” says Shannon Barry Vasconcelos, director of college finance for Bright Horizons College Coach. “Per the College Board, 73 percent of students at public colleges and 87 percent of students at private colleges receive some type of scholarship or grant discount — but full-ride scholarships are extremely rare.”

You’ll also want to consider local prizes, says Doug Hewitt, co-author of “Free College Resource Book.” “There are more scholarships you’ll qualify for in your home state than nationally. Look at local organizations and talk to your high school (guidance) counselor.”

It’s also important to start your search early. Some scholarships are limited to a first come, first served basis. You should also keep in mind that you don’t need to wait for your senior year to start hunting for scholarships. There are grants and awards available at all high school grade levels.

2. Give service to 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. 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

Schools charge students tuition, but their employees can often obtain a free education. “College policies differ, but you often need to be employed full-time and have completed a certain amount of service before you qualify for the tuition remission,” says Barry Vasconcelos.

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

Another way you might receive a free college education is through your employer. There are plenty of employers that can help curb the cost of higher education, often through an employee reimbursement.

“Employer tuition assistance can provide up to $5,250 in employer-paid educational assistance, but many employers provide less, with reimbursements contingent on maintaining a minimal grade in the classes, typically at least a B,” says Kantrowitz. “Employers can bypass the $5,250 limit if the tuition assistance is considered a working condition fringe benefit.”

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 also additional opportunities available through organizations like Teach for America and the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program.

7. Attend a work college

A work college is another way to get free college education or, at the very least, substantially discounted tuition. Just like 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 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.

Free college, hard work

While there are lots of ways you can get a free college education, you should be ready to put in the time and effort required. There are no shortcuts to obtaining free tuition. What’s more, you won’t be the only person trying to find out how to go to college for free. Start your search early and apply to as many scholarships, grants and work programs that you can find. Cast a wide net and you may just catch the educational opportunity of a lifetime.

Featured image by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez of Getty Images.

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