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The cost of a college education has long been increasing faster than inflation. Tuition and fees in the 2011-12 school year averaged $9,890 at a public four-year college, with the cost rising to $10,740 in the 2021-22 school year according to CollegeBoard. The number is even greater for private schools — rising from $33,320 to $38,070. This can put college financially out of reach for many, but there are ways to get an education for free or at a drastically reduced price.
Affordable ways to go to college
While it’s virtually impossible to go to college for “free,” students can reduce their college costs to make education much more affordable in a number of ways.
1. Apply for grants and scholarships
Grants and scholarships are a type of financial aid that does not need to be repaid. Before you decide you can’t receive a scholarship if you’re not a star athlete, remember that a huge number of full-tuition grants and scholarships designed to help all types of students are available.
The first place to start is with the college or university you plan to attend. Each school generally has its own application process and requirements for handing out merit-based grants and scholarships, including full rides.
Filling out the FAFSA can also help you qualify for additional scholarship money from your school — and it’s the only way for the institution to offer you need-based money.
Additionally, there’s no limit to the grants and scholarships you can apply for and receive. This means it’s conceivable to have your education paid for entirely through a combination of several smaller grants and scholarships, even if you don’t qualify for or receive a full ride.
Check with nonprofit organizations, local and national businesses, and professional associations in your field to find scholarships and grant-based aid that you may qualify for. You may also want to find scholarships that fit your specific demographic, talents, interests, needs, or plans.
- Maintain a high GPA
- Show potential in a specific educational field
- Are a certain ethnicity
- Have extreme financial needs
- Intend to study at a specific university or program
- Have worked as a volunteer
2. Look into military service
Ever since the original G.I. bill passed in 1944 to provide returning WWII service members with a range of civilian benefits, our nation has made sure to help pay for education in exchange for military service. Several versions of the G.I. bill have existed since that time, and the current bill, known as the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill (Chapter 33) can help service members go to school for free or at a much-reduced cost.
- Served 90 days of active duty starting on or after Sept. 11, 2001
- Received a Purple Heart on or after Sept. 11, 2001
- Served at least 30 continuous days starting on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and honorably discharged with a service-connected disability
- Are a dependent child using benefits transferred by a qualifying veteran or service member
- 100% of the full benefit for service members who served 36 full months
- 90% of the full benefit for 30 to 35 months of service
- 80% of the benefit for 24 to 29 months of service
- 70% of the benefit for 18 to 23 months of service
- 60% of the full benefit for 6 to 17 months of service
- 50% of the full benefit for 90 days to 5 months of service
3. Work at school
A number of colleges and universities offer free or reduced tuition for employees and staff of the school. This is often called “tuition remission.” In some cases, this is even extended to children of employees, as long as they qualify for admission.
While the full list of schools that offer free tuition to employees and staff would be too long to include here, some examples include:
- Boston College: Full-time employees, their spouses, and their children are eligible for 100% tuition remission, provided the employee has worked there for at least five years at 35 hours per week. Employees who have worked less than five years can expect 50% tuition remission. Children of employees must be admitted through the regular admissions process.
- Goucher College: This college provides tuition remission to full- and part-time employees, their spouses, and their dependent children. Full-time employees must have worked a minimum of 30 hours per week. Part-time employees must have worked either 10 hours per week for at least 39 weeks per year or as a half-time faculty member.
- Marquette University: Both full- and part-time employees and their immediate families are eligible for tuition remission at Marquette. The benefit for part-time staff is prorated. This benefit starts the semester after the employee’s hire date.
- New York University: Full-time NYU employees, their spouses, and their dependent children are eligible for tuition remission through NYU. The employee must complete at least one full year of employment before the remission is available to a dependent child. If you make $50,000 or more per year, you’re eligible for 90% of the benefit. Those making less than $50,000 are eligible for the full benefit.
In addition to these individual schools, many colleges and universities offer tuition exchange programs with other schools. That means working at one school could potentially earn you tuition remission at another school within the exchange network.
Though tuition remission can allow you to attend for “free,” generally, you’ll still be required to pay for your own fees, books and supplies, housing, and other educational costs.
See Also: Paying for College without Financial Aid
4. Employer payment
Some employers offer tuition payments as a perk of employment. While not common among all employers, larger corporations are more likely to provide such a benefit.
In most cases, the maximum amount of tuition reimbursement you might receive from an employer is $5,250 per year. Any amount higher than that is considered taxable income, and the employee will be expected to pay income taxes on the benefit.
Some of the companies offering tuition assistance to their workers include:
- Amazon: If you work for the online retail giant for at least 90 days, you’ll be eligible to receive tuition assistance at one of the participating institutions.
- Boeing: If you’re employed by Boeing and meet the requirements, the company will help pay for your undergraduate or graduate education, and tuition assistance for your dependents.
- Disney: Full- and part-time Disney employees can use the Disney Aspire program at one of the partner schools to get an undergraduate or graduate degree. Disney will pay for your tuition and books.
- Target: If you work at Target, either full- or part-time, the company will pay for your tuition at its partner institutions.
Even if you don’t work for one of the listed companies, you can ask your employer if tuition assistance is part of your benefits package.
See Also: 8 Steps If Your Parents Won’t Help Pay for College
5. Choose a school that pays for you
Certain colleges and universities will pay the tuition of students who meet certain criteria. These requirements typically have to do with financial need, but not always.
The following schools will pay for your education if you meet the eligibility requirements:
- Alice Lloyd College: If you hail from one of the 108 Appalachian counties in this college’s service area, you’re guaranteed an out-of-pocket tuition cost of $0.
- University of New Hampshire: The Granite Guarantee offers a tuition-free UNH education to all New Hampshire students eligible for the Federal Pell Grant.
- Warren Wilson College: Students from North Carolina who qualify for a federal or state need-based grant can attend Warren Wilson College tuition-free. To be eligible, you must live on campus and participate in a work program for 8 to 16 hours per week.
- Webb Institute: If you’re interested in naval architecture and marine engineering, this small specialty engineering school on Long Island offers a full tuition scholarship to any student who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. The school only has one course of study, so this option will only work for students committed to the niche field of naval architecture/marine engineering.
Take out a private student loan
Once you’ve exhausted your options for going to college free, you should consider taking out a private student loan for any gaps in funding. Credible lets you compare private student loan rates from multiple lenders, all in one place.
The companies in the table below are Credible’s approved partner lenders. Whether you’re the borrower or cosigner, Credible makes it easy to compare rates from multiple private student loan providers without affecting your credit score.
|Lender||Fixed Rates From (APR)||Variable Rates From (APR)|
|4.509 - 14.83%9||5.49%9 - 15.83%9|
your credit score. 100% free!
Lowest APRs reflect autopay, loyalty, and interest-only repayment discounts where available | 10Ascent Disclosures | 1Citizens Disclosures | 2,3College Ave Disclosures | 7EDvestinU Disclosures | 8INvestEd Disclosures | 9Sallie Mae Disclosures
Learn More: How to Apply for Student Loans