For most families, affordability is one of, if not the biggest deciding factors for higher education — two-thirds of today’s college students use some form of financial aid.
Given the pressures of paying for school, students and parents will be happy to learn there are a handful of schools offering complete financial aid packages in exchange for student work. Tuition may be totally or partially covered by these programs, depending on the school. Most require at least 15 hours of work each week in addition to a full load of classes, and student workers generally serve essential functions in the operation of the school.
Working your way through school is not for every student. Options are limited and often only available to specific student populations. Taking a heavy class load and working part-time can be challenging, particularly to college students who are unused to managing their own time. Even older students may struggle with this requirement when faced with more advanced class work and out-of-class demands like internships and practicums.
Our list details eight institutions that offer four-year degrees at reduced or free tuition in exchange for work. Military schools have been omitted, and graduation rates reflect those who completed their degree within four years of their start date. Acceptance, enrollment and graduation data were reported by the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator.
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Alice Lloyd College
Alice Lloyd College serves students from the surrounding Appalachian mountain area; residents of 108 counties in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee are eligible for admission. While Alice Lloyd is a private school, its unique financial aid policy guarantees tuition for any students who live in its service area.
All Alice Lloyd students are eligible for standard federal aid via Pell Grants and academic scholarships; additionally, its privately funded endowment trust assures qualifying students that any remaining balance will be covered. These students are expected to work on campus in exchange for their education; students serve in administrative, maintenance, community service or academic assistance positions at the school. Students must work a minimum of 10 hours per week in exchange for receiving endowment funds that cover the cost of tuition, room and board.
As the leading school in alumni giving among southern regional colleges, Alice Lloyd has been named a Top-Tier Academic Institution by U.S. News and World Report. Graduates of this school have the least amount of student debt in the United States.
Berea College is also nestled in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky. Students at this private Christian school choose from 28 liberal arts degree programs, and can expect class sizes to be under 20. Through the school’s Labor Program, students are expected to take a full course load and simultaneously work 10 to 15 hours per week to repay the college for extending them the cost of tuition and room and board. Financial aid through traditional sources like federal grants and academic scholarships are not prohibited, but they do not affect the work requirements.
Working as a student at Berea is not a typical campus work-study assignment. Instead, each student is matched to a job that aligns with his or her major and skill level as a freshman. As students advance through their studies, they are expected to advance in the workplace as well, taking on more responsibility as experience is gained. Performance in the workplace is not graded; however, supervisors regularly evaluate and report students’ work performance.
Eighty-five percent of Blackburn students make ends meet by taking advantage of this liberal arts school’s work program, though tuition and room and board at Blackburn College may be supplemented by standard sources of financial aid. Students in this program must log 160 hours of work per semester, earning tuition credits as they work on campus or in the nearby southern Illinois community. Blackburn’s Work Program is unique in that it is managed by its students, providing participants the opportunity to gain higher-level skills that may be more attractive to employers.
College of the Ozarks
College of the Ozarks, known colloquially as C of O, is located near Branson in southwest Missouri. This private Christian university offers 4-year degree programs in 40 majors, focusing on the development of patriotic and hardworking citizens. The goal of C of O is to provide a tuition-free education to students who otherwise would not be able to attend college. All students must demonstrate financial need to attend C of O, and all enrollees must work to defray the cost of attendance. Full-time students must work 15 hours per week in exchange for tuition, as well as two 40-hour weeks when class is not in session. Students who demonstrate extreme need may work 6-week sessions in the summertime to cover the cost of room and board.
Because C of O discourages debt, its students may not borrow state or federal funds to cover the costs of college. Grants and scholarship funds from government and private sources are allowed, however. C of O takes its conservative Christian roots seriously and prohibits alcohol and tobacco on campus. Admission is highly selective; only 13% of applicants were admitted in 2013.
Ecclesia College, a private Christian school, has a student population of less than 200. Each of the seven available degree programs is taught from a Biblical perspective. Every student at Ecclesia is eligible for financial aid through the school’s Work Learning program. Participants spend 15 hours per week in positions on campus; junior and senior students are placed in jobs that align with their field of study. Tuition credits of up to $2,000 per semester may be earned to defray the cost of attendance.
Ecclesia caters to students who appreciate the familial atmosphere of a very small campus; homeschooled students in particular may find Ecclesia offers the right environment for their post-secondary learning. Though students need to pay for the courses, it is also possible to complete class requirements online, and the school offers a scholarship that greatly discounts the cost of online enrollment.
Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont, is a small private institution located just south of the U.S.-Canadian border. Situated on a working farm, Sterling is devoted to educating students via both classroom and fieldwork. The fieldwork takes place in actual fields, as students manage animal husbandry, horticulture, woodlot management, and agriculture and conservation in the process of maintaining a working farm and school.
Four-year degrees are available in ecology, outdoor education, sustainable agriculture and food systems, and environmental humanities. One third of Sterling’s students opt to design their own degree programs.
Students may defray the cost of tuition while adhering to Sterling’s educational model of hard work in the context of learning. All residential students must work at least 80 hours per semester; in return, a minimum of $1,650 may be credited against tuition. Total enrollment is about 100 students and average class size is seven. At 63%, Sterling’s first-year retention rate is higher than most colleges.
Warren Wilson College
Warren Wilson College, located near rural Asheville, North Carolina, is a small private liberal arts college focused on environmental studies. Though it was founded as a Presbyterian missions school, WWC no longer has a religious affiliation. Students may choose from 40 majors for a 4-year degree, or design an individual program via Integrative Studies. Regardless of major, all WWC students must strive to practice ecological sustainability. To that end, all students must work at least 15 hours a week on a work crew that is essential to the sustainable operation of the school. As a result, tuition may be reduced by as much as $3,500 per year.
There are fewer than 1,000 students enrolled at WWC at any given time, allowing for an 11:1 student-faculty ratio. After environmental studies, the most popular majors include sociology and performing arts. Graduates of WWC generally can expect to do well; 75% reported full-time employment within six months of graduation.
Curtis Institute of Music
The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is one of the most selective schools in the country. Curtis is very small, taking up just five buildings in urban Philadelphia. Its students are talented musicians who are preparing for careers in music performance at the highest levels, who give more than 200 performances a year. Students who successfully audition into Curtis receive 100% tuition coverage.
Financial support for Curtis was initially provided by a $12.5 million gift from founder Mary Louis Curtis Bok, which launched Curtis’ unusual tuition-free policy in 1928 and provided financial support for much of the school’s history. In the 1980s, Curtis instituted annual fundraising to augment ongoing endowment fundraising. Together with planned gifts, this private support funds more than two-thirds of the school’s annual operating expenses.
Curtis only accepts an average of 5% of total applicants. This selectivity guarantees an intimate and intensive learning environment for Curtis’s 175 students. Celebrated instructors work one-on-one with student musicians to prepare them for a lifetime of elite performance. The school offers a Bachelor of Music degree, a diploma, and for opera students, a Master of Music degree and a Professional Studies certificate. The length of a student’s stay is open-ended, and students graduate when their teachers decide they are ready.