Students in the United States are facing a college affordability crisis: Total student loan debt has reached $1.6 trillion, and between 2006 and 2016, tuition costs rose 31% at public institutions and 24% at private institutions.
These cost increases show no signs of slowing down, which makes earning a degree seemingly impossible for a growing number of individuals. However, without a college degree, job opportunities and earning potential may be limited.
But what if you could go to college without paying for tuition or racking up student loan debt? You might think this is a fanciful idea, or a privilege only Europeans enjoy, but there are actually several tuition-free schools in the United States. Below, we reveal the ins and outs of colleges with free tuition.
An Overview of Tuition-Free Colleges
Alright, there is one catch to colleges that charge nothing for tuition: Many require students to work a set amount of hours. Other requirements may include residing in a certain geographical area or committing to post-graduation work or service requirements. But if students are willing to meet these requirements, it may be worth considering a tuition-free school.
Another type of tuition-free model includes military academies, such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy. While everything is provided free of charge by the government, these schools require military service in exchange for an education. As such, they may not be right for everyone, and we do not include them on our list of the top five tuition-free schools.
A variation of the tuition-free model also includes institutions with large endowments, such as Ivy League schools. Colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia all offer substantial financial assistance to eliminate student loan debt. These institutions leverage their large donations and financial assets to offer grants or scholarships that give eligible students free tuition. While generous, these schools are typically much harder to get into and may not be an option for everyone.
The Top 5 Innovative Colleges With Free Tuition
Most tuition-free colleges require students to meet certain standards to qualify. Some may require students to work a minimum number of hours on campus, be enrolled full time, live in the area, or complete certain work or service obligations after graduation. Most tuition-free colleges also require students to finance their own room and board, fees, and textbook costs.
Because tuition-free colleges typically rely on private financing, many have a smaller student body and may offer limited degree offerings. In addition, several colleges with free tuition are religiously affiliated, which may not interest some students. However, all such schools have a few things in common: They are innovative, niche, and eminently affordable.
1. College of the Ozarks
The College of the Ozarks (COFO) aims to offer quality educational opportunities to students without sufficient means. The school is founded on Christian principles and aims to develop Christ-minded leaders with a strong work ethic. COFO is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and boasts a variety of accolades.
U.S. News & World Report ranks COFO number one on its "most innovative" and "best value" lists; it's also number three on its list for best regional colleges in the Midwest, and COFO's undergraduate teaching program ranks number six among Midwest colleges. The school offers a variety of degrees in fields such as accounting, education, business, the natural sciences, history, and psychology. Students may also enroll in one of their many pre-professional programs.
COFO's tuition-free model requires students to enroll full time and work a minimum of 15 hours a week on campus. During academic breaks, students must work 40 hours a week. In addition to submitting standardized test scores and an application, most students must demonstrate financial need to the admissions office to qualify for enrollment. Part-time students do not qualify for free tuition and must pay $310 per credit hour.
To finance its work education program and free tuition, COFO relies on private donations and charitable support. The college does not receive any funding through state, federal, or loan programs.
2. Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York
Macaulay Honors College is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) college system. It consistently ranks as a top honors school and boasts a growing student body of nearly 1,400. Many of the school's graduates go on to study at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Duke.
As a top honors college, Macaulay requires students to meet strict academic standards. It also requires students to complete a minimum of 10 hours of community service in each of their first three years at the school. Every student at Macaulay receives a free-tuition scholarship that doesn't include any fees. Additionally, students receive a $7,500 Opportunities Fund grant to finance research and service opportunities, a MacBook Pro, and a Cultural Passport to New York City arts and cultural events.
Macauly students benefit from a uniquely designed interdisciplinary education. The school combines a student's interests and abilities with one of the many academic programs available at any of the eight SUNY colleges. Popular fields of study include political science, English, business, mathematics, and psychology. Students complete a combination of upper-division honors courses and three-credit seminar courses to graduate.
To offer its unique educational opportunities to students, Macaulay relies on support from private donors, alumni, foundations, and corporations. Due to its rigorous academic standards, Macaulay is not for everyone. However, for those that qualify, it offers a rewarding and prestigious educational experience.
3. Alice Lloyd College
Alice Lloyd College (ALC) is a small Christian school offering pre-professional programs and bachelor's degrees. It is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. U.S. News & World Report ranks ALC third on its list of best value schools among southern regional colleges and 21 on its list of best overall southern schools.
Students at ALC may pursue a variety of undergraduate degrees in areas such as teaching, nursing, business, criminal justice, and liberal arts. Many of these programs offer concentrations or minors that allow you to tailor your education to specific career goals. ALC also offers several pre-professional programs that prepare students for entry-level positions in areas like law, engineering, dentistry, physical therapy, and medicine.
To offer its programs tuition-free, ALC relies on private donations and does not accept any direct state or federal funding. To qualify, students must reside in one of the 108 counties within the Central Appalachian service area. They must also work a minimum of 160 hours per semester either on campus or in the community through ALC's Student Work Program. It is important to note that while tuition is paid, students must pay for room and board which cost an average of $1,900 per year.
Through its tuition-free model, ALC aims to offer educational opportunities to students who may not otherwise be able to pursue a college education. ALC strives to develop skilled leaders with a desire to serve their own communities. It also encourages its graduates to pursue their professional careers locally.
4. Berea College
Berea College is one of only nine federally recognized "work colleges." Its undergraduate student body of 1,600 students consists mostly of Appalachia residents, but students hail from nearly every U.S. state and 60 different countries. Berea is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The college also boasts that 90% of its 130 faculty members hold the highest degree in their respective fields.
Berea offers 32 bachelor of science programs and 15 education programs. It is best known for an innovative service-learning program that ties a student's academic studies to the local community. Students in this program work with faculty and community organizations to design projects and solutions to community issues.
Students at Berea College do not pay tuition thanks to the school's Tuition Promise Scholarship. However, students must pay their own room and board expenses. Many students use federal funding through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to cover these costs. Berea requires students to work 10-15 hours a week. Students may choose from over 100 different on-campus or off-campus work or service opportunities.
Berea College relies on endowments, alumni donations, and private donations to fund its scholarship program, operations costs, labs, and textbooks. It estimates that it needs about $4.7 million dollars each year to continue operating. While a difficult feat, recent accolades from a CNN documentary bode well for Berea College as an exceptional model for affordability and access. This makes Berea a notable school to consider for pursuing a college degree.
5. Webb Institute
The Webb Institute focuses solely on engineering and offers one undergraduate degree in naval architecture and marine engineering. It is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and its engineering programs are accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET. Webb's student body of approximately 100 students come from about 30 different states.
All Webb students receive a full-tuition scholarship. It does not cover the costs of room and board, books, or software. Many students use internships or other financial aid sources to finance these costs. To fund its free tuition program, Webb relies heavily on donations from private donors and alumni rather than any public funding sources through the state or federal government.
Other unique features of Webb Institute include paid internship opportunities for all students, 100% job placement for graduates, and a student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1. Students can also access a 90-foot long model ship basin for research and experiments and live on Webb's 26-acre campus, which includes a private beach. Students complete work hours in the maritime industry during winter term while receiving a salary as part of their academic requirements to graduate.
A disadvantage of Webb Institute is its limited academic offerings and smaller student body. However, for anyone interested in the field of engineering, earning a degree at Webb may provide a competitive advantage. Graduates of Webb's program go on to work in a variety of settings, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, at Fortune 500 companies, or at high-tech startups.