Saturday, September 25, 2021

7 Ways to Go to College for Free (or Ultra-Cheap!)

The average student debt in the US is over $39,000 — ouch! If you (like us) don’t have that kind of cash in the bank, you’ll love to know this: there are ways you can go to college for free (or at least heavily discounted).

That’s right: while there may not be such a thing as free lunch, there are numerous ways to get into your dream school without being crushed under a mountain of debt. Read on to find out how you might be able to score free or ultra-cheap college education.

1. Choose a College With Free Tuition

“Land of the free” — yes, but America is hardly the land of free education. Attending college in the US can be frighteningly expensive. So what if we told you there was a way you could reduce, or even entirely avoid, having to pay tuition?

With tuition-free schools, you can do that. From four-year colleges offering incentives to local residents to tuition-free community college programs, a variety of schools around the country offer free tuition programs.

However, getting into these schools is not always a cakewalk. Every tuition-free school has its own requirements. Sometimes it’s as simple as where you grew up, while other times you’ll need to meet strict standards for income and academic merit. William E. Macaulay Honors College in New York, for instance, offers full tuition (plus a laptop) to students who meet the New York State residency requirements

Keep in mind though, even if you receive free tuition at one of these schools, that doesn’t mean everything is free. You’ll be saving the cost of your college classes, but you’re still likely to pay for textbooks, meals, and housing. Despite all of that, you’ll still save way more money in tuition-free colleges than traditional colleges.

READ MORE: How to Find Cheap College Textbooks: The Ultimate Guide

2. Apply for Grants and Scholarships

Grants and scholarships are a great way to offset your college costs or even go to college for free. Available through the government, your college, or private organizations, grants and scholarships give you money for college that you don’t need to repay. 

Grants are primarily available through the federal government though you can also take advantage of state grants or other special grants reserved for women, minorities, and international students. The best place to start is by filling out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Scholarships are also a great way to save some big bucks in college. Look for scholarships that match your skills and talents. There’s a scholarship for almost anybody, including musicians, gamers, and even vegetarians.

There are even a few scholarships that cover all of your college expenses, including tuition, room, board, and supplies. These are known as full-ride scholarships and are offered to a select few students — typically those with top scores who also demonstrate leadership and community service.

READ MORE: How to Apply for Scholarships and Grants: All You Need to Know

3. Strike a Deal With Your Employer

Want to work in your desired career field while at the same time getting a college degree? Now you can have the best of both worlds! 

Many high-profile organizations offer full- to partial-tuition assistance programs for their employees. Some companies pay upfront, while others may later reimburse your tuition costs. From Amazon and UPS to Starbucks — a number of employers are making the higher education dream come true for their employees.

That said, if you work in a small- or medium-sized company, it’s still worth pitching your case to your employers. Chalk out a foolproof plan and give them reasons to invest in you — after all, it never hurts to ask, and could just get you free college!

server-who-goes-to-college-free-via-job-holding-plate-of-food
Your job could be the answer to going to college for free. Photo: Petr Sevcovic/Unsplash

4. Work for Your University and Go to College for Free

If you are open to funding your education by working for your university, work colleges could be a great choice.

A work college integrates academic programs with work programs, offering either free or reduced tuition to students who participate in these programs. Currently, there are nine work colleges across the country that are recognized by the Department of Education.

Students in these programs work on-campus jobs in the library, dining hall, or even groundskeeping. That doesn’t mean if you’re accepted at a work college you’ll be scraping dishes and mopping floors. Some of these colleges have excellent programs where students gain practical experience that prepares them for the workforce, helps them pay for school, and at the same time, gives back to the community. 

READ MORE: The Pros and Cons of Participating in a Federal Work-Study Job

5. Serve in the Military

Serving your country can help make your education dreams a reality. In fact, each military branch provides its own version of the Military Tuition Assistance program, which can sometimes fund the entire amount of your college expenses — up to $4,500 per year.

The military also offers a generous education benefit called the GI Bill. Reserved for service members and veterans, the GI Bill covers all tuition, fees, textbooks, and supplies for up to 36 months at public colleges and universities. 

Plus, as a current or former member of the armed forces, you’ll qualify for unique scholarships and loan repayment programs.

Cadet of military school going to college for free
Want free college? Signing up for the military is one answer. Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

6. Consider Applying for Apprentice Programs

Apprenticeships give you a hands-on approach to learning. These programs are available across all sectors, from automotive to hospitality to healthcare. Many apprenticeship programs can directly lead to careers that are financially rewarding. 

For example, you could land one of the following high-paying jobs (and their annual salaries) through an apprenticeship:

Many of these programs are paired with local community colleges and trade schools and are designed to help you earn while you learn. So, while you’re hunting for the right college or trade school, this is a factor you may want to keep in mind that can cover your tuition costs.

7. Choose a No-Loan College

No loans in college? Sounds too good to be true. But what if we told you there are schools where you could study without taking out student loans? At no-loan schools, the financial aid office will determine how best you can qualify for free tuition through scholarships, on-campus jobs, or even your family income without taking out student loans. 

Colleges and universities are gradually warming up to the idea of no-loan policies due to the astronomical student loan debt in the United States. 

For instance, Columbia University’s need-based aid program offers free tuition to students from households making less than $60,000 annually. You’ll still need to cover your accommodation, books, and supplies, but could save tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money.

Since the prospect of free education is so tempting, these schools usually have a competitive acceptance rate. However, if you can make it in, no-loan schools are a one-way ticket to debt-free education.

READ MORE: 11 Things to Know About Student Loans Before Going Into Debt

How to Lower Your College Expenses

Tuition may be your greatest expense, but it’s just one component of your college costs. Additional expenses like room and board, textbooks, and transportation can also add up to a daunting amount by the time you graduate. If you could lower or eliminate just one or two of these costs, imagine all the money you would save in four years! We show you how it’s done.

Weigh Up Public vs. Private College

Your choice to attend either a public or private college can have a significant impact on your budget. So if you’re wondering which is the right choice for you, take a look to weigh up the differences.

Public Colleges Private Colleges
Lower tuition rates due to subsidies by state governments. Higher tuition rates because private universities do not receive federal or state funding.
Limited financial aid is available for students. Larger budget set aside for students’ financial aid.
Larger class sizes leading to a poor student-professor ratio.  Smaller class sizes implying better relationships with professors.
Demographically diverse student body due to higher acceptance rates and lower tuition. Geographically diverse student body because they don’t offer state residency incentives.

While there is no correct answer to whether public or private college is better, the trick is to decide which factors are more appealing to you and select a college accordingly.

READ MORE: Public vs. Private College: Which Is Right for You? 

Choose to Study Close to Home

If you’re bored of your hometown, choosing a college in a different state can be an exciting option. That said, studying out of state can cost you significantly more than staying in-state. Have you considered the extra thousands of dollars worth of out-of-state tuition? Not to mention the additional expenses for room and board?

When you study close to home, you can save this amount by paying in-state tuition rates and living with your family. To save even more, you can commute by bike or public transportation. Believe it or not, these small steps could save you thousands of dollars over the course of your education.

Even if you choose to live locally in a separate apartment (because space is important!), you can still come back home with a pile of dirty laundry every week. And let’s be honest — home-cooked meals win every time!

Earn College Credits With High School AP Classes

AP (Advanced Placement) classes are college-level courses offered to high school students. These classes can range everywhere from chemistry to history, so choose your best subjects.

You generally don’t need to pay extra to take an AP class, though there is a small fee if you want to take the exam held every May. If you score well enough on the AP test, you earn credits for college. That means, working hard in AP classes now can cut down on a semester or two for you in college. Some students save an entire year thanks to AP credits. With three years to graduate instead of four, you’ll be able to finish college faster and save precious money.

Some high schools even offer programs for juniors and seniors to take classes at their local community college, earning both high school and college credit. These programs have different names across the country, sometimes referred to as Early College, Early Start, Running Start, or similar. Find out if your school offers an early college initiative — it’s an incredible way to shake up your high school routine, improve your college readiness, and it’s free tuition!

photo-of-teacher-teaching-ap-class-with-students
Taking AP classes can give you an entire college semester or year for free. Photo: Max Fischer/Pexels

Speed-up Your Education With Summer Classes

Attending long lectures and taking notes might not be your idea of a perfect summer, but summer classes can help you get ahead on your credits, taking you a step closer to your college degree.

Unlike regular classes where you’re stuck on campus, summer classes may also be available at other campuses, community colleges, and even online. They are also shorter than regular semesters, typically lasting four to six weeks. Working through the summer means completing your degree faster, saving you thousands of dollars in housing costs, tuition-related fees, and other college-life expenses. 

READ MORE: Sweet Discounts for College Students You Might Not Know About


Everyone deserves a shot at higher education, regardless of their financial situation. So even if you don’t have a dime to your name, these cost-effective ways will help you earn a free (or inexpensive) college degree.

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