In a country where it’s common to have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, getting a college education for free is a radical idea. Unless a full scholarship is on the table, most people may not consider it an option to go to college for free.
But there are multiple ways to earn a college degree for free—or at least at a heavily reduced cost.
How to Go to College for Free
Attending college for free is possible if you know the right strategies to use. Here are the top three methods to get a free education.
1. Attend Community College First
One of the best ways to get a free or less-expensive education is to complete your basic prerequisites at a community college and then transfer those credits to a four-year college. Before attending community college, verify that those credits will be accepted by the four-year college you want to attend.
Financial aid is available at community colleges, and what’s more, many states offer free community college to local students. In some cases, the programs come with eligibility qualifications, such as a minimum high school GPA. States that offer free community college to residents include:
- Rhode Island
States like Arkansas, Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia also provide free tuition, but have a limited number of spots available at that price.
Even if you do end up needing to pay for part of your community college tuition, the cost is much lower than it would be at a four-year college. In 2020, the average annual in-state tuition and fees at a public two-year college were $3,770, compared to $11,440 for an in-state, four-year public university, according to the College Board.
2. Choose an In-State Four-Year Public College
Attending an in-state school is the best way to get a free four-year college education because states often offer more financial aid to local students. Some states, like Indiana, New York and Washington, even have free four-year college options for eligible applicants.
In some cases, you may be eligible for in-state tuition at an out-of-state school. For example, residents in New England can receive in-state tuition if they attend another New England college. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators offers a full list of regions that offer tuition exchange programs.
Even if you don’t qualify for free tuition, you could save tens of thousands by staying close to home. The average tuition and fees at an in-state public university were $10,560 per year in 2020, compared to $27,020 per year for an out-of-state public university, according to the College Board.
3. Minimize Living Costs
If you’re going in-state, you can save even more money by living at home, or potentially by renting an apartment instead of living in a dorm. The average annual cost of room and board is $11,560 at public four-year universities and $13,120 at private nonprofit four-year colleges, according to the College Board.
Room and board usually costs more than renting an apartment because you’re paying for a furnished room, unlimited utilities and a cafeteria meal plan, which often costs more than buying your own groceries. Some schools also charge for security, gym access and other features.
If you live in an apartment, you can often save money by monitoring your utility usage, cooking your own meals and living with multiple roommates. If you choose to stay at home, your parents may cover some or all of your groceries and basic needs.
If you still want to live on campus, consider becoming a resident advisor (RA). RAs live in the dorms and work around 20 hours a week. In exchange, they often receive free lodging and a small monthly stipend.
Apply to College Early
Some financial aid is available no matter when you apply, but other awards are given on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you apply to college, the greater your chances of receiving grants, scholarships and work-study. Here are some ways to do that.
Find a tuition-Free School
There are currently 11 tuition-free, non-military colleges including:
- Alice Lloyd College
- The Apprentice School
- Barclay College
- Berea College
- City College of San Francisco
- College of the Ozarks
- Curtis Institute of Music
- Deep Springs College
- Warren Wilson College
- Webb Institute
- Williamson College of the Trades
These schools don’t charge for tuition, but often require that students study a certain major, be from the local area or work on campus.
Join the Military
The five major military colleges offer free tuition for students who agree to serve after graduation, usually between five and eight years. They often cover the cost of room and board, fees and textbooks. They will also typically provide a monthly stipend that students can use for other expenses.
These colleges include:
- United States Air Force Academy
- United States Coast Guard Academy
- United States Merchant Marine Academy
- United States Military Academy
- United States Naval Academy
If you’re not accepted into one of these schools, you could also enlist in the military after high school, serve the minimum requirement and then use veterans’ benefits like the GI Bill to pay for college. The GI Bill covers all expenses at public universities and a large percentage of tuition and fees at private universities.
Get Help From Your Employer
Many employers offer tuition reimbursement as an employee benefit. Starbucks will pay 100% tuition for both full- and part-time employees who earn a first-time bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University’s online program, for instance. Home Depot, AT&T and Walmart also offer partial tuition reimbursement.
Depending on the company’s policy, employees may be limited on what they can study or what school they can attend. You may also have to work for a certain period of time and have a history of positive performance to become eligible for tuition reimbursement. If you quit your job or are fired, you may immediately lose access to this benefit.
Submit the FAFSA
Almost any student who wants a free college education needs to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form requires that students and parents submit recent financial information, which universities use to determine what kind of financial aid you’re eligible for.
If you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you won’t be eligible for state and federal grants or most university-based scholarships. Once you’re accepted to a university, they’ll review the FAFSA and decide how much aid to offer you. You have to complete the FAFSA every year you attend school.
Apply for Scholarships
Many students avoid applying for scholarships because they think the odds are against them. But if you apply for enough scholarships, chances are you’ll be rewarded for your time.
Don’t shy away from small scholarships. Many students only apply to scholarships with large awards, which leaves a smaller pool of applicants for the less substantial scholarships. These small awards can add up quickly, and may have less intense requirements than the larger scholarships.
Scholarships aren’t limited to incoming freshmen. Many are available to current college students, including upperclassmen. Talk to your department advisor, as they may have suggestions about awards you’re eligible for.
Search for scholarships that fit your interests, passions and demographics. For example, if you’re a female student interested in engineering, search for STEM scholarships geared toward women. If you play the bassoon, find scholarships for bassoon players.
Is a Tuition-Free College the Right Route for Me?
While attending a tuition-free college saves money, it may also limit your options. For example, some tuition-free colleges are smaller, offer fewer degree choices or have a religious affiliation. Military colleges are generally well-regarded, but require military service after graduation.
If you want to study a subject that’s not available at any of the tuition-free colleges, you’ll likely have to compromise on your major or find another school to attend.
How to Apply for Free College Tuition
If you don’t want to attend one of the free colleges listed, you can instead use a multi-faceted approach to driving down the cost of your education.
You may have to use several of the previously mentioned strategies, like going to community college first, attending a local state school and applying for multiple scholarships. You may also have to find a part-time job while you’re attending classes to pay for rent, groceries, transportation and other expenses. But given enough focus and determination, it is possible to go to college and get all the benefits of a degree without paying full price.