Tuition-free college sounds like a fantasy. But at some colleges and universities, it is possible for students to qualify to attend without paying tuition costs.
Not all colleges offer free tuition, and some may require students who are receiving free tuition to maintain certain academic standards or meet other requirements. Other colleges may offer a reduced-tuition option for eligible students.
When considering that attending a four-year college can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the appeal of free tuition is obvious. Read on for more details about how free-tuition programs work and an overview of colleges that offer free or reduced tuition.
What Is Tuition-Free?
Yes, it’s true: There is a limited number of schools that offer free college tuition to students. There are also schools that offer free tuition if your parents earn less than a certain amount of money per year.
Keep in mind that offers of free college tuition often may not include other costs like books, fees, transportation, or room and board. Researching the total cost of education at your chosen institution will give you a complete picture of your financial obligation.
Still, tuition is, generally speaking, a huge cost — so not having to pay it could mean huge savings.
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Why We Need Tuition-Free College
The answer to this question is probably pretty obvious: For many families, college is prohibitively expensive. Parents who want to foot the bill for their kids may feel stressed and guilty when they find they can’t afford the cost of college out of pocket, and students themselves may feel the repercussions of the exorbitant cost of school for decades.
Still, there are both pros and cons to consider when deciding whether a tuition-free university is right for you. Here are some things to consider.
💡 Quick Tip: Fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee SoFi private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.
The Pros of Free College Tuition
The first pro is the most obvious: You could save a lot of money. Maybe you had planned on taking out student loans to pay for school. Think of the financial freedom you could enjoy if you didn’t have to spend years paying off student loans after graduation.
Second, free tuition can help make college more accessible for low-income students. If your family can’t financially contribute to your education, and you aren’t willing or able to accumulate educational loan debt, free tuition programs can make college a possibility.
The Cons of Free College Tuition
Few colleges offer free tuition to all students, which means your options for schools may be more limited. Some tuition-free programs are competitive. A few of these programs are connected with the U.S. Military and require students to serve after graduation. A lot of the tuition-free colleges are small, private schools, and many are religion-based. You may want to consider whether these are environments you would enjoy for four years.
Because there are so few schools offering free tuition, attending school may require you to move further away from home. Depending on the student, this could be a pro or con.
Some schools have certain requirements for those who attend and/or receive free tuition, such as participating in a work-study program, maintaining a certain GPA, or living on campus.
Before you apply to a tuition-free program, you’ll want to consider all the pros and cons to decide if the program is right for you.
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Schools That Offer Free College Tuition to All Students
Here are 31 tuition-free colleges in the U.S.: 15 offer free tuition for all students, and 16 offer free tuition to students from low-income families.
The United States Air Force Academy (Colorado)
The Air Force Academy provides free tuition, room, board, and medical and dental benefits. Students must serve as an officer in the Air Force for at least eight years, and at least five of those years must be in active duty.
The United States Coast Guard Academy (New London, Connecticut)
The Coast Guard Academy offers students free tuition, room, and board. Students must serve as a Coast Guard officer for at least five years after graduation.
The United States Merchant Marine Academy (Nassau County, New York)
Midshipmen receive free tuition, uniforms, books, room, and board. Basic medical and dental care are also provided by the Academy’s Office of Health Services. However, any healthcare expenses that exceed the provided health plan will need to be covered. Students are also responsible for transportation during leave periods. The Academy recommends applying for student loans if you need help with these expenses. Service obligations after graduation may vary between five and eight years.
The United States Military Academy at West Point (West Point, New York)
Tuition, room, board, and medical and dental insurance are free for West Point students, and they also receive a monthly stipend. Incoming Plebes, as new students are called, have to pay a one-time fee of $8,400 to cover uniforms, books, and other equipment. Graduates are commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the Army. You must serve a minimum of eight years, though that obligation is a combination of Active Duty and Reserve.
The United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland)
The Navy covers students’ tuition, room, board, and medical and dental costs. In return, they must serve in active duty for at least five years after graduation.
Alice Lloyd College (Pippa Passes, Kentucky)
This liberal arts college provides free tuition to residents of Central Appalachia , which spans five states including Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Students are required to participate in the Student Work Program , which involves at least 10 hours per week and 160 hours per semester. They must cover expenses other than tuition.
Barclay College (Haviland, Kansas)
This Christian school provides a scholarship equal to the amount of tuition to students who live on campus. Students must cover the cost of room, board, or other fees.
Berea College (Berea, Kentucky)
Berea is a liberal arts school that provides free tuition to all students. In order to qualify, students must come from families with limited resources. The average annual family income of Berea students is less than $32,000. Students, however, pay some costs , including room, board, health and dental care, which add up to about $4,000 per semester. Almost all Berea students (96%) receive Pell Grants to cover those costs.
College of the Ozarks (Point Lookout, Missouri)
This Christian liberal arts college provides free tuition for full-time students, provided they participate in the work-study program, which involves 15 hours per week and two 40-hour workweeks per year. Room, board, fees, or books are not included.
Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
The conservatory provides free tuition to undergraduate and graduate students through merit-based scholarships. If students need financial assistance for other fees and living expenses, they can participate in the work-study program.
Macaulay Honors College at The City University of New York (New York City, New York)
The highly selective honors college is part of the City University of New York. It provides free tuition to New York state residents who are admitted to the program. Students must maintain a certain GPA during their time at Macaulay, and they are responsible for additional fees including covering room and board.
Warren Wilson College (Swannanoa, North Carolina)
Warren Wilson is a small, private liberal arts college in North Carolina. Students who qualify for federal and/or North Carolina state-based aid receive free tuition. You must be a North Carolina resident, enroll as a full-time student, live on campus, and participate in the work-study program. If you don’t qualify for free tuition at Warren Wilson, the school is known for providing generous scholarships.
Webb Institute (Glen Cove, New York)
This engineering college provides free tuition to all students and financial aid opportunities to cover additional fees. The school offers only one undergraduate degree: a dual Bachelor of Science in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.
Deep Springs College (Deep Springs, California)
This unique two-year college is located on a remote cattle ranch in California. Only 12 to 15 students are admitted each year, and tuition, room, and board are free. Students can apply for additional scholarships if they need help covering other expenses.
Williamson College of the Trades (Media, Pennsylvania)
This men’s vocational college teaches trades such as carpentry, power plant technology, and masonry. Each student receives the Williamson Scholarship, which is need-based and can be as high as $32,430, which is $140 shy of the school’s estimated costs for tuition, room, board, and annual fees.
Schools That Offer Free or Reduced Income-Based College Tuition
The following schools offer varying amounts of tuition assistance depending on a student’s family income level. Based on the information a student provides on the yearly Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), schools take into account both parent contributions and student contributions to determine financial need.
Recommended: SoFi FAFSA Guide
Offers of free tuition may sometimes mean that the parent contribution is equal to zero, but there may still be an expected student contribution.
Ivy League Schools
Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island)
Brown fully covers tuition for families earning $125,000 or less. In addition, students of families making less than $60,000 a year will receive scholarships that cover all expenses including tuition, room, board, and books. Students can apply for additional scholarships to help support other expenses. The university’s website specifies that student contribution expectations are set annually.
Columbia University (New York City, New York)
Students qualify to attend tuition-free if their parents earn less than $150,000 annually and have typical assets. For students coming from families who earn less than $66,000 annually, there is no expectation of parental financial contribution. All incoming first-year students are expected to pay $2,400, which is the minimum student contribution as part of their financial aid award.
Cornell University (Ithaca, New York)
Cornell guarantees no parental contribution and no loans for students whose families earn less than $60,000 per year and typical assets. For students from families with total annual income up to $75,000, the annual aid offers include grants and work-study only — students are not expected to need to take out loans.
Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire)
For students whose families earn less than $65,000 per year with typical assets, there’s no expectation of parental contribution, and the aid award does not include any loans. Students are expected to contribute toward their own expenses, but they can choose to take a loan if needed. The Dartmouth Scholarship provides free tuition for students from families with total incomes of $125,000 or less who possess typical assets.
Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Harvard’s website states that as of the 2023-24 school year, if a student’s family earns under $85,000 annually, parents won’t pay anything for tuition or other fees. If they earn between $85,000 and $150,000, families and students pay between zero and 10% of their income per year. A student may still qualify for financial aid if their family earns more than $150,000.
Princeton University (Princeton, New Jersey)
Princeton offers full tuition, room, and board for students whose parents earn less than $65,000 per year. After that, financial aid is offered on a tiered scale, with families earning between $65,000 and $160,000 receiving full tuition and a portion of room and board fees.
University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Students from families with incomes less than $75,000 (and typical assets) receive financial aid packages that cover tuition, fees, room, and board. UPenn states they are also eligible for additional benefits like laptop funding and summer opportunity funds. Students from families with incomes between $75,000 and $140,000 (and typical assets) receive financial aid packages that cover at least tuition. Students from families with incomes higher than $140,000 may be eligible to receive aid packages that are greater than half of tuition. Penn emphasizes that it’s committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial needs with grant-based aid.
Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut)
Yale expects zero parent contribution for students whose families earn less than $75,000 per year and have typical assets. Students from families who earn between $75,000 and $200,000 (with typical assets) contribute a percentage of their annual income towards their child’s education, on a sliding scale that begins at 1% and moves toward 20%.
Other Elite Schools
Duke University (Durham, North Carolina)
Beginning with the fall 2023 semester, Duke will provide full tuition grants for undergraduate students from North Carolina and South Carolina whose family incomes are $150,000 or less. For North and South Carolina residents, students whose families earn $65,000 or less will receive full tuition, plus financial assistance for housing, meals, and other campus expenses, and there’s no expectation they will need to take out loans.
For families who earn under $60,000 annually, Duke does not require any parental financial contribution. First-year students are expected to make a minimum contribution of $2,600 regardless of income.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
MIT ensures scholarship funding for students whose family income is less than $140,000 (plus typical assets) so most can attend tuition-free. Most students whose families earn less than $65,000 receive aid to cover tuition, fees, housing, and some dining costs.
Rice University (Houston, Texas)
Students from families who earn less than $75,000 annually can attend Rice with an aid package that covers tuition, fees, room and board. Students from families with annual incomes between $75,000 and $140,000 are awarded full-tuition scholarships, and students from families earning between $140,000 and $200,000 will receive scholarships covering at least half of their tuition.
Stanford University (Stanford, California)
Stanford does not expect parental contribution toward educational costs for students whose parents earn a total annual income below $100,000 and typical assets. Students are expected to contribute toward their own expenses — usually around $5,000 — from their summer income, part-time work during the school year, and their own savings. Students from families who earn less than $150,000 per year plus typical assets can typically attend Stanford tuition-free.
Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas)
As of fall 2023, Texas A&M will cover both tuition and fees for students whose family income is $60,000 or less. Beginning in the fall semester of 2021, families who earn more than $60,000 but less than $130,000 qualify for scholarships or grants, ranging from $500-$1,500 based on income and financial need.
University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois)
If your family’s adjusted gross income is less than $125,000, you’re eligible to receive free tuition to the University of Chicago. If your family’s AGI is less than $60,000, the school will also cover room, board, and other fees.
University of North Carolina (17 campuses across North Carolina)
As of fall 2024, UNC will cover tuition and mandatory fees for North Carolina students whose families earn less than $80,000 annually and have typical assets. Students from families with a total income that is at or below 200% of the poverty guideline and who meet additional economic criteria to qualify can attend UNC debt-free thanks to the Carolina Covenant aid program.
Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee)
Vanderbilt’s financial aid program is ranked number one by Princeton Review in 2023. Instead, Vanderbilt claims to meet 100% of families’ demonstrated financial need (through grants and a “reasonable work expectation”) based on the FAFSA and they do not use income bands to determine who receives aid. Vanderbilt’s financial aid packages do not include student loans.
Financing Your Education If You Don’t Qualify For Free Tuition
Not all students will qualify for or attend a school that offers free tuition. There are several options for financing college.
Tuition Payment Plans
Students and their parents may be able to take advantage of a tuition payment plan, which allows you to break up the cost of tuition, room, and board, over the course of a semester or year.
Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants are often referred to as “gift aid,” because you don’t typically have to pay back scholarships or grant money after graduation as you do with student loans.
Scholarships are often offered based on merit, while grants are typically based on financial need. Gift aid can come from different types of institutions — from your college to local community organizations to large corporations.
Recommended: A Guide to Unclaimed Scholarships and Grants
Unlike scholarships and grants, you do have to repay student loans upon leaving school or graduating. Student loans are split into two broad categories: federal and private loans.
Federal student loans are disbursed by the government, which sets fixed rules about repayment and interest rates. You apply for these loans by filling out the FAFSA.
Private financial institutions may provide private student loans. Each private loan company sets its own repayment requirements and determines their own interest rates. You apply for these loans directly through the lender.
Private student loans are generally considered as an option only after all other sources of aid have been exhausted. This is because they lack the same borrower protections as federal student loans, such as income-driven repayment plans or the option to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
💡 Quick Tip: Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.
There are a number of schools that offer free tuition plans or substantial financial assistance to students. Free tuition programs can make higher education more accessible to lower-income students. As mentioned, some schools may have requirements around work-study, academics, or living on campus, in order for students to qualify for free or reduced tuition.
Students who aren’t enrolled in a school that offers free tuition have a few options for financing their education including savings, federal financial aid, scholarships, and federal student loans.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.
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