Going to college can come with a hefty price tag. The average cost — which includes housing, books, supplies, and other living expenses — is $28,840 for public in-state students and $46,730 for public out-of-state students at four-year colleges, according to 2023 data from College Board.
But earning a degree doesn’t have to be expensive, if you know how to get into college for free (or at a significantly reduced cost). Using a combination of scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and other unconventional strategies and resources, you may be able to attend college for free, or close to it.
1. Search for scholarships
Applying for scholarships is a great way to slash your education costs. There are thousands of scholarships available from numerous sources, including colleges and universities, private companies, and nonprofit organizations.
Scholarships are considered “gift aid,” which means you don’t have to repay them. Unlike grants, which are typically based on need, many scholarships are merit-based. They’re awarded to students with outstanding talent or ability in specific areas, such as academics, athletics, or the arts.
Each scholarship has its own eligibility and application requirements. Check with your high school guidance counselor or financial aid office to see if you’re eligible for local scholarships or awards from the schools you’d like to attend.
Here are some tips for applying:
- Use a scholarship search engine: Scholarships.com is one, offering over 3.7 million college scholarships and grants.
- Start early: Many scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so applying early may improve your odds of receiving an award.
- Apply for as many as you can: This will increase your chances of success.
Learn More: How To Get a Scholarship for College
2. Research need-based aid
Depending on your family’s financial situation, you may qualify for need-based financial aid. This money generally doesn't need to be repaid, and you can use to cover college costs. Federal sources of need-based include:
- Grants, such as Pell Grants: The amount you receive is determined by your family’s ability to pay for college, as calculated by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), your enrollment status, and your school’s cost of attendance.
- Work-study programs: These are part-time jobs available on or off campus to help students cover education expenses.
You’ll need to register for the FAFSA to determine if you’re eligible for federal aid, though your school or private organizations may also use your FAFSA data to award grants. Like scholarships, funds are often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so you’ll want to submit the FAFSA as soon as you can.
The FAFSA usually opens on October 1 for the following academic year; but for the 2024-25 school year, the FAFSA isn’t available until December 2023.