Best Tuition-Free Colleges
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According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), college tuition and fees averaged about $13,360 annually during the 2019-2020 academic year. At four-year colleges, the average cost was around $16,650 per year. These figures do not include room and board or additional fees, which can raise college cost totals considerably.
Over the last 20 years, college costs in the U.S. have nearly tripled, according to EducationData.org. Contributing factors include increasing competition from new for-profit schools. To remain competitive, today's schools must spend more money on advertising, recruitment, and improvements to student experience. Huge salary hikes for college administrators and executives also drive up college costs.
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Many Americans today advocate for tuition-free college options. High tuition prices and staggering student debt rates drive many students toward the few existing affordable or free-tuition programs.
Online tuition-free colleges offer education to qualifying candidates. Admission qualifications may include belonging to special interest groups or maintaining residency in certain cities or states.
Students can also pursue need- or merit-based financial aid from the federal government or various scholarship providers. Learn about the best tuition-free colleges below.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tuition-Free Colleges
Are tuition-free colleges really free?
Most online tuition-free colleges do not provide free tuition to all students. Learners may qualify for tuition waivers for various reasons, including financial need. Prerequisites for tuition waivers may include government or military service contracts.
Residents of certain cities or areas may qualify for free tuition at some schools, as well. Native American students and learners who experienced foster care or adoption may qualify for special funding.
A handful of today's online tuition-free colleges offer financial aid packages designed to help learners avoid borrowing money. These packages usually include grants and scholarships. Some schools offer free tuition in exchange for work commitments.
How can I go to college for free?
Some learners qualify for full scholarships based on identity, merit, or financial need.
Native Americans may receive scholarships or enroll in tuition-free colleges like Haskell Indian Nations University. Talented musicians may apply to the Curtis Institute of Music, which offers free attendance to all admitted musicians.
Additionally, many companies and nonprofit organizations offer tuition reimbursements
Some tuition-free colleges charge fees and residency expenses but cover tuition costs in exchange for on-campus work. Such colleges include College of the Ozarks, Warren Wilson College, and Berea College. Aspiring military personnel may attend tuition-free military academies in exchange for military service.
How can I go to college with no money?
Low-income learners can pursue various paths to affordable or tuition-free college. Students with no money typically qualify for financial aid, including federal grants and loans. High-achieving, low-income students may qualify for merit-based or need-based scholarships. Some tuition-free colleges serve special populations such as Native Americans Americans or aspiring military personnel.
Learners who do not qualify for free tuition can borrow money. Consult our guide to college loans for help understanding your borrowing options. Subsidized federal loans help enrollees pay for college. These funds require repayment, but they do not start accumulating interest until after graduation.
Can I get a free college degree online?
Regionally accredited schools usually offer distance learners the same financial aid opportunities that on-campus students enjoy. Some online learners qualify for merit- or need-based grants or scholarships that cover tuition expenses.
Some schools offer tuition-free degree programs online to all enrollees. The first free accredited online university, University of the People, offers undergraduate degrees in health science and computer science, as well as an MBA, M.Ed., and various certificates.
Even some major prestigious universities such as Columbia or Stanford University grant free tuition to students whose families earn less than $60,000 annually.
What Does Tuition-Free College Mean?
Many U.S. schools, agencies, and organizations offer scholarship or tuition reimbursement programs to eligible students. Many prestigious, well-endowed schools also offer full scholarships to high-performing students.
Specific populations such as Native Americans, foster children, or adoptees may qualify for free tuition. College employees and their spouses and children often receive tuition discounts or reimbursement, as well.
Around 18 states provide tuition-free community college programs. Some regional and city schools offer free tuition only to area residents.
Community-based College Promise programs usually dispense funds on either a first-dollar or a last-dollar basis. A first-dollar basis awards College Promise funds before drawing on federal financial aid offerings, whereas last-dollar programs apply to the expenses that remain after learners have exhausted their other financial aid.
Some military academies cover tuition and living expenses for enrollees who commit to military service after graduation. However, tuition-free programs do not usually include free room, board, or books. Prospective students may save money on college textbooks in other ways.
How to Attend College for Free (Or Cheap)
Prospective students can save money by exploring financial aid options and considering online tuition-free colleges. Planning and doing this research can make a huge difference in the long run. The following eight tips do not all lead to free college, but they can lower qualifying students' tuition expenses considerably.
1. Choose a Tuition-Free School
Some online schools offer free tuition to students from certain regions, states, or backgrounds. A few large public universities such as the City University of New York and the City College of San Francisco offer qualifying residents free tuition.
2. Apply for Grants and Scholarships
Many learners rely on federal grants to cover part of their tuition. Schools and nonprofit organizations may also offer scholarships or grant money, which does not require repayment.
Learn more about the many grants and scholarships that can make college more affordable. The best tuition-free colleges may offer special scholarships and financial aid for distance learners.
3. Serve Your Country
Active or reserve military members often receive significant tuition discounts. The Department of Veteran Affairs provides information on education and training benefits. Military schools such as theU.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy offer free or mostly free tuition in exchange for military service. Some schools offer reduced tuition prices for military families.
4. Work for the College
Many colleges and universities allow full-time employees to take classes for free. Some schools even offer free or discounted tuition to employees' children or partners. For more employee benefits information, consider consulting professional organizations such as the American College Personnel Association and the College and University Professional Association.
5. Attend a Work College
Work colleges integrate work, service, and learning and provide tuition-free education. Sometimes liberal arts work colleges employ enrollees in exchange for pay or tuition reimbursement. Work college graduates report better preparedness for their current jobs than do graduates from public four-year institutions or private colleges.
Some trade colleges provide free tuition in exchange for apprenticeship work. Virginia's Apprentice School offers classes and full-time jobs in shipbuilding-related trades. Enrollees do not pay tuition during their 4-5 year apprenticeships.
Pennsylvania's Williamson Trade School helps students build skills in horticulture, masonry, and carpentry. The institution also provides need-based scholarships that may exceed school tuition expenses.
6. Use a Tuition Waiver
Some of the best tuition-free colleges offer tuition waivers to certain types of students. Tuition waivers may apply to veterans, active members of the military, and university-employed graduate students. Learners who demonstrate financial need or special interest group status may also qualify for tuition waivers at some colleges.
7. Participate in Federal Work-Study
Work-study programs provide low-income students with jobs on campus or at off-campus partner organizations that serve the public good. The federal government subsidizes these positions.
Income from these jobs sometimes goes directly toward tuition expenses. Some students use this money to cover other educational and living expenses, as well.
8. Have Your Employer Pay for Tuition
Some companies and organizations provide tuition reimbursement for their employees. Top companies such as Starbucks, Geico, and Apple help their employees pay for school. Keep in mind that tuition reimbursement programs sometimes only cover programs or classes that relate to an employees' role or field.
Best Tuition-Free Colleges
Curtis Institute of MusicLocation
A tuition-free college for musicians, Curtis ensures that none of its students pay out-of-pocket tuition. The college achieves this feat by connecting degree-seekers with on-campus employment opportunities, institutional scholarships, and federal grants.
Curtis offers both a bachelor's and a master's in music. The bachelor's degree features coursework in post-tonal harmony, advanced dictation, and music history. Students also complete a robust general education curriculum.
Curtis alumni have gone on to find careers as musicians and conductors at some of the world's top orchestras. The institute also provides free recording time at its on-campus recording studio and gives students access to an extensive alumni network.
Berea offers a full-tuition scholarship to all learners and provides financial assistance for textbooks. Before awarding funding, the college assists students in researching and applying for outside aid, such as state and federal grants. Most students at this tuition-free college pay no more $1,000 per year on education-related expenses.
At Berea, learners in the education studies department can select from approximately 25 online courses. Current online courses include extended school experience, science for teachers, and integrated curriculum.
Berea provides its students with access to Handshake software, which details career opportunities and job-hunting best practices. The college also provides learners with internship opportunities and a career development program.
College of the OzarksLocation
Point Lookout, MO
C of O requires that each learner spend 15 hours per week working on campus to qualify for the Cost of Education Scholarship. Students at this tuition-free college take advantage of institutional and private financial aid resources to ensure that no student goes into debt to pay for a degree.
C of O offers 28 undergraduate majors, including child studies, culinary arts, and hotel and restaurant management. The college features multiple minors in Christian topics, such as theological studies and Christian mission. Additionally, the college's teaching programs prepare students for initial Missouri teaching licensure.
The college's career center offers one-on-one advising sessions, internship opportunities, and an annual career day. These services help approximately 75% of alumni find a job soon after graduation.
Illinois residents in Macoupin County who are interested in tuition-free college should consider Blackburn. The college's Macoupin Promise offers free tuition to eligible students who graduated from an in-county high school, can participate in a work-study program, and have a household income that is less than $60,000 per year. Blackburn also extends the Macoupin Promise to nontraditional learners.
Blackburn features dozens of undergraduate degrees, including programs in environmental biology, computer science, and political science. Additionally, the college's work-study program pairs students with a job that aligns with their academic major.
Blackburn helps students find jobs by providing interviewing guides, a graduate school application reference guide, and links to job sites.
Alice Lloyd CollegeLocation
Pippa Passes, KY
ALC's Tuition Guarantee covers all tuition costs for residents of 108 counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. This tuition-free college also allows students who need more than four years to graduate to do so at no extra cost. However, ALC's students do pay for housing and fees.
ALC offers a variety of bachelor's programs, including biology, criminal justice, and an education degree that features 17 concentration options. With an average class size of 18 students, the college ensures that professors can give each learner a personalized educational experience.
The college offers incoming first-year students a four-year career success plan that emphasizes career exploration and career implementation. ALC also provides all learners with access to a job board.