A lot of questions pop up when you start applying to colleges. Should you take the leap and move to a university far away from Mom and Dad? Should you apply to the same colleges as your friends? What if your top school choice doesn’t accept you?
Among all those “shoulds” and “what ifs” lies an even more daunting question: How much is college going to cost?
It’s no secret that going to college can become a financial burden. According to The College Board , the average cost for in-state students to attend a two-year school is $3,440 per year. Those who enroll in a private, four-year university will pay an average of $32,410 annually in tuition and fees, not including expenses like books, room, and board.
Here’s one more “what if” question: What if you didn’t have to pay for college?
There are a limited number of schools that offer free college tuition to students. If none of those colleges strike your fancy, you could consider schools that offer free tuition if your parents earn less than a certain amount of money per year.
Offers of free college tuition often may not include other costs like books, fees, room and board, or transportation. Researching the total cost of education at your chosen institution will give you a complete picture of your financial obligation.
Let’s look at 31 free colleges in the U.S.: 15 provide free tuition for all students, and 16 offer free tuition to families with low-income levels.
The Pros of Free College Tuition
The first pro is the most obvious: You could save a lot of money. If your parents had planned to pay for your education, perhaps they might choose to put that saved money towards their retirement.
Maybe you had planned on taking out student loans to pay for school. Think of the financial freedom you could attain if you didn’t have to spend years paying off those 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, you may not have to give up on the dream of attending college.
The Cons of Free College Tuition
Few colleges offer free tuition to all students, which means your options for schools are more limited. Most of these colleges are small, private schools, many of which are religion-based. You may want to consider whether this is an environment you would enjoy for up to four years.
Because there are so few schools offering free tuition, you may have to move far from home to attend one of these colleges. This could be a con for some students but a pro for others.
Some schools have certain requirements for those who attend and/or receive free tuition, such as participating in a work program or living on campus.
Before you apply to any of the following schools, think about whether free college tuition is worth the trade-offs of attending a certain type of school, meeting specific requirements, or potentially moving far away from your family. To help, here are some high-level overviews of a few of those schools.
Schools That Offer Free College Tuition to All Students
• United States Air Force Academy (Colorado): The Academy provides free tuition, room, board, and medical and dental benefits. You 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.
• United States Coast Guard Academy (New London, Connecticut): You’ll receive free tuition, room, and board. You have to serve as a Coast Guard officer for at least five years after graduation.
• United States Merchant Marine Academy (Nassau County, New York): Midshipmen receive free tuition, uniforms, books, room, and board. You’ll have to cover expenses such as healthcare and transportation for leave periods, so the Academy recommends applying for student loans if you need help with these expenses. Your service obligations after graduation can vary between five and eight years.
• 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 you’ll receive a monthly stipend. After graduation, you’ll go to the Basic Officer Leader Course for a year, then join a branch of the Army for at least three years.
• United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland): The Navy covers all students’ tuition, room, board, and medical and dental costs. In return, you’ll 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 students who are residents of Central Appalachia . Students are required to participate in the Student Work Program at least 160 hours per semester. You must pay for 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, but the school doesn’t 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. The website states that students pay an average of $1,000 per semester for room, board, meals, and other fees, and the school offers financial aid for books.
• 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 15 hours per week and work two 40-hour workweeks per year. The school’s “Graduate Debt-Free” page breaks down how free tuition works in detail.
• 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 honors college provides free tuition to New York state residents, including summer and winter classes, excluding the summer before freshman year. Students are responsible for additional fees.
• Warren Wilson College (Swannanoa, North Carolina): If you qualify for any federal or North Carolina state-based federal aid, Warren Wilson College will fund the rest of your tuition, excluding fees. 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 junior liberal arts college covers all students’ tuition, room, and board, and there are scholarships that can be applied for to cover 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. This amount is just $140 under the school’s estimated costs for tuition, room, board, and annual fees.
Schools That Offer Free or Reduced Income-Based College Tuition
These schools offer varying amounts of tuition assistance depending on your family’s income level. Based on the information a student provides on the yearly Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), the Expected Family Contribution takes into account both parent contributions and student contributions to determine financial need.
Offers of free tuition may sometimes mean that the parent contribution is equal to zero, but there may still be an expected student contribution. If accepted to these schools, here’s what you can currently expect:
Ivy League Schools
• Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island): Brown has a zero parental contribution policy for most students whose families who earn less than $60,000 per year. The university’s website specifies that “student effort expectations are set annually.”
• Columbia University (New York City, New York): If your parents earn less than $60,000 per year, the expected parental contribution is zero. If your family earns between $60,000 and $100,000, you may be eligible to receive a significant discount on tuition.
• 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 have total assets (primary home equity, retirement savings, certificates of deposit, etc.) equaling less than $100,000.
• Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire): Students whose families earn less than $100,000 per year receive free tuition upon acceptance. The school stresses that even if your parents earn more than $100,000 annually, you may still qualify for scholarships.
• Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts): Harvard’s website states that if your family earns under $65,000 annually, parents won’t pay anything for tuition or other fees. If you earn between $65,000 and $150,000, families and students pay between zero and 10% of their income per year. There is an expected student contribution for all students.
• Princeton University (Princeton, New Jersey): Princeton covers tuition, room, and board for students whose parents earn less than $65,000 per year.
• University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): If your family earns less than $65,500, you may qualify for free tuition, fees, room, and board. If your family’s annual income is between $65,500 and $130,000, the average aid package is greater than the cost of tuition. Students whose families have an income greater than $200,000 may be eligible for aid that is more than half of the cost of tuition.
• Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut): Yale expects zero parent contribution for students whose families earn less than $65,000 per year. “Student Effort ” is included in the financial aid award for each student and is “based on the principle that paying for a college education should be a partnership between students, their families, and the University.”
Other Elite Schools
• Duke University (Durham, North Carolina): Duke does not require any parent financial contribution for students whose families earn under $60,000 annually. The university does include student income in the financial aid calculation, however.
• Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts): If your family earns less than $90,000 per year, MIT promises you free tuition upon acceptance.
• Rice University (Houston, Texas): Beginning fall 2019, you may be able to receive half-tuition to Rice if your family makes $130,000-$200,000 annually; full tuition with an income of $65,000-$130,000; and full tuition, room, board, and other fees with an annual income lower than $65,000.
• Stanford University (Stanford, California): Stanford does not expect a parental contribution toward educational expenses from families with an annual income less than $65,000. For families with an annual income less than $125,000, there is a reduced parental contribution expected, with additional financial need met through scholarships and/or grants. Students are expected to contribute towards other expenses.
• Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas): Texas A&M offers financial aid (which they refer to as Aggie Assurance) for eligible students whose parents earn less than $60,000 annually. You must be a resident of Texas, a full-time student, and you have to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA at Texas A&M to qualify. Aggie Assurance does not cover any fees.
• 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): This school promises a debt-free education to eligible students whose family income does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, which is $47,700/year for a family of four.
• Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee): Vanderbilt’s approach is different from other schools on this list. The school doesn’t offer free tuition to students whose families earn under a specific amount annually. Instead, Vanderbilt claims to meet 100% of families’ demonstrated financial need (through grants and a “reasonable work expectation”) based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
Financing Your Education If You Don’t Qualify For Free Tuition
For whatever reason, you may not be able to or want to attend a college that offers free tuition. If that’s the case, there are several options for financing your college years.
Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants are often referred to as “gift aid,” because they’re essentially that: gifts. You don’t typically have to pay back scholarship or grant money after graduation as you do with student loans.
Unlike scholarships and grants, you do have to repay student loans upon leaving school or graduating. Student loans are split into two 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.
Businesses, banks, and colleges may provide private student loans. No two private loan companies are the same, so each sets its own repayment requirements and how much you’ll pay in interest. You apply for these loans directly through the lender.
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