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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 how much college may cost, the appeal of free tuition is obvious. Read on for more details on 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, 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.
Still, tuition is, generally speaking, a huge cost — so not having to pay it could mean huge savings.
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 or not tuition-free universities strike your fancy. Here’s some food for thought.
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 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, 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. A lot 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, 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 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
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 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.
The 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.
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 will also be responsible for transportation for 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 you’ll receive a monthly stipend — but there is a one-time up-front cost of $8,400 for all incoming Plebes 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 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 10 hours per week and 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. There are, however, other fees , including room, board, health and dental care, and others, which add up to about $4,000 per semester.
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. Keep in mind that this program does not include room, board, fees, or books.
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®), schools take 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 can currently be expected:
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 and own less than $100,000 in assets. The university’s website specifies that student contribution 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 — and that number is going up to $125,000 for the class of 2026. The school stresses that even if your parents earn more than these amounts, 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. You may still qualify for financial aid if your family earns more than $150,000.
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. 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 $65,000 per year. They also offer a $2,000 grant to first-year students who are eligible for this “zero parent share” award, as well as free hospitalization insurance.
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, and expects a minimum contribution of $2,600 from first-year students regardless of income.
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)
Per the 2020-2021 school year, 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 guarantees families earning less than $150,000 annually free tuition — and families earning less than $75,000 free tuition, room, and board.
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. Beginning in the fall semester of 2021, families who earn more than $60,000 but less than $130,000 will qualify, too. 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, in 2021, is $51,500 per 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 FAFSA. This need is met in the form of grant assistance.
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
If it’s not the amount, but how quickly you need to pay it, you may be able to take advantage of a tuition payment plan, which allows you to spread out the payments you and your family make to the school over time.
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 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 numerous types of institutions — from your college to local community organizations to large corporations.
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. 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.
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.
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. When these resources aren’t enough, some students consider private student loans.
SoFi offers fee-free student loans for undergraduate and graduate students and their parents. And borrowers who lose their job through no fault of their own may qualify for unemployment protection, which allows qualifying borrowers to pause payments on their student loans.
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