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Top 10 Free Colleges and Universities in the USA

By Zach Skillings

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: January 23rd, 2024
Top 10 Free Colleges and Universities in the USA

Going to college doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, there’s a variety of tuition-free colleges across the nation. These schools make it possible to receive a higher education while accumulating little to no debt! If you’re thinking this sounds too good to be true, keep reading to learn more. 

Also see: Top full ride scholarships for high school students

What does “tuition-free” mean exactly?

Great question! While this is the case sometimes, it’s important to know that “tuition-free” doesn’t always mean “100% free”. Many colleges provide free tuition but may require students to pay for room and board or additional fees. However, many tuition-free colleges provide financial assistance in these areas as well. At this point, you may be wondering how some schools are able to enroll students without charging them tuition. Well, there’s actually a few different ways that schools achieve tuition-free status. Let’s discuss them briefly: 

Also see: Free college: How to get a free degree abroad

Student work programs

Some schools implement work programs, in which colleges provide free tuition in exchange for student work. Students at these colleges work a certain number of hours per week to be eligible for free tuition. Jobs range from cooking meals and milking dairy cows to working in the campus library or computer center. Students may have the opportunity to work various jobs throughout their time in school. For example, one of the colleges on our list, Berea College, requires that students work for a mere 10 hours for 100% free tuition. 

Related: Everything you need to know about work study

Small enrollment sizes 

Some colleges are able to provide free tuition because their enrollment numbers are so low. For instance, Deep Springs College never has more than 30 students enrolled at once. Small schools like this can afford to pay for everyone’s tuition because there are far fewer students to account for. Other schools may be able to enroll up to around 200 students and still provide everyone with free tuition. 

Specific student populations 

A few colleges provide full-tuition scholarships to certain groups of students. For instance: 

  • Alice Lloyd College is free for many students from the Appalachian Mountains 
  • City College of San Francisco provides free tuition for all San Francisco residents
  • Low-income, first-generation college students may also be able to find programs that allow them to attend college for free

Also see: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

Top tuition-free colleges

1. Alice Lloyd College

Location: Pippa Passes, Kentucky
Enrollment: 613
Acceptance Rate: 36%

This private liberal arts college provides free tuition for students from 108 counties in Central Appalachia. Rather than paying tuition, students contribute by working. Per the requirements of the Student Work Program, all students must work at least 160 hours per semester. Areas of employment include library assistance, building maintenance, janitorial duties, food preparation, daycare, and more. Alice Lloyd College maintains a 17:1 faculty-to-student ratio. They offer 18 bachelor’s degree programs in fields such as communications, business, liberal arts, education, and nursing.

2. Deep Springs College

Location: Deep Springs, California
Enrollment: 26
Acceptance Rate: 8%

Enrolling no more than 30 students at a time, this unique two-year college is one of the smallest institutes of higher education in the U.S. Located on a cattle-ranch and alfalfa farm, Deep Springs is committed to three main principles – manual labor, academics, and student self-governance. Between 12 and 15 new students are admitted each year, each one receiving a full scholarship covering the cost of tuition, room, and board. In exchange, students work approximately 20 hours a week. Jobs range from milking dairy cows and irrigating the farm to cooking meals and cleaning dishes. After completing their two-year program, many students go on to finish their bachelor’s degree at four-year universities. 

3. Webb Institute

Location: Glen Cove, New York
Enrollment: 105
Acceptance Rate: 20%

Located in Long Island, this small private institution is one of the most cutting-edge engineering schools in the country. Webb offers only one course of study – a double major in Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture. Graduates have a 100% job placement rate, many going on to pursue profitable careers in the maritime industry. Full-tuition scholarships are provided to all students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. 

4. Barclay College

Location: Haviland, Kansas
Enrollment: 162
Acceptance Rate: 54%

This private Christian college provides full-tuition scholarships to students living on campus in residence halls. In exchange for free tuition, students pay for their room and board. However, financial aid is provided in some cases. Barclay provides a strong biblical foundation, and is open to students of all evangelical denominations. As a faith-based school, Barclay offers degree programs such as Psychology and Biblical Counseling, Youth Ministry, Pastoral Ministry, and Worship/Arts. Students can earn associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees at the school. 

5. Berea College

Location: Berea, Kentucky
Enrollment: 1,454
Acceptance Rate: 33%

All students admitted to this private liberal arts school receive the No-Tuition Promise, which covers 100% of tuition costs. For most students, this amounts to over $176,000 across four years. To make free tuition possible, students must work at least 10 hours a week at a campus-approved job. Berea offers majors in over 30 fields of study including computer science, biology, business, economics, education, psychology, and more. Both Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees are available. 

6. Curtis Institute of Music 

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Enrollment: 109
Acceptance Rate: 5%

Curtis is a renowned institution known for training some of the most gifted young musicians. They are one of the most competitive and selective music colleges in the nation. Many graduates go on to become performing artists at the highest professional level. All undergraduate and graduate students receive full-tuition scholarships, regardless of their financial situation. Students also receive financial assistance for living expenses based on need. 

7. City College of San Francisco 

Location: San Francisco, California
Enrollment: 16,219
Acceptance Rate: 100%

This public community college offers two years of free tuition to San Francisco residents. The school has an open enrollment policy, meaning that all high school graduates aged at least 18 are eligible to enroll. Students can choose from a range of two-year associate degrees in fields such as arts and media, business, communications, education, health and safety, and more. Day, evening, and weekend classes accommodate learners with varying schedules. The school is made up of 11 locations throughout San Francisco. 

8. College of the Ozarks

Location: Point Lookout, Missouri
Enrollment: 1,468
Acceptance Rate: 21%

Full-time students at this private Christian college are not required to pay tuition. Instead, students are expected to work 15 hours a week, plus two 40-hour work weeks per school year. Students are required to pay health/technology/services fees, but Pell Grants can be used to cover these additional costs. As a result, students have the opportunity to graduate debt-free. College of the Ozarks is committed to Christian values, providing students with a strong biblical foundation. The school offers bachelor’s degrees in over 30 fields of study, with popular majors including nursing, business administration, and psychology. 

9. Macaulay Honors College

Location: New York City, New York
Enrollment: 1,609
Acceptance Rate: 48%

This prestigious honors college is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) public university system. The school is known for taking a broad, interdisciplinary approach to education. Students have access to a wide range of degree programs offered across CUNY’s eight campuses. Macaulay is committed to student success, boasting the highest advisor-to-student ratio of any honors college in the U.S. Students who meet the requirements for in-state tuition are provided a comprehensive scholarship that includes a laptop, cultural passport, and four years of undergraduate tuition. 

10. U.S. Service Academies 

All five U.S. service academies (Military Academy, Naval Academy, Coast Guard Academy, Merchant Marine Academy, and US Air Force Academy) offer free tuition, room, and board. In exchange, students are required to serve in the Armed Forces following graduation. Minimum terms of service are usually five years of active duty and three years of reserve duty. All five academies are highly selective, with admission rates ranging between 8 and 20 percent. 

Related: How to get in-state tuition as an out-of-state student

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • Keep in mind that tuition-free college does not mean that all expenses will be covered, but simply that the tuition piece of your college will be covered
  • If you attend a tuition-free college, you may still be eligible for financial aid, so be sure to still submit your FAFSA
  • With a lot of hard work, it is possible to secure a full-ride scholarship, which will cover virtually all of your college expenses
  • Keep in mind that for many schools with free-tuition, you will need to work a certain amount during the week, or make a service commitment that you will fulfill after graduating
Key Takeaways

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Frequently asked questions about free colleges and universities in the USA

Are there any free universities in the U.S?

For students with very high demonstrated need, any college that meets 100% of demonstrated need will be cost-free. Additionally, many states and cities have started programs that make their community colleges tuition-free for in-state tuition. That being said, there are not any colleges in the United States right now that are 100% for all students aside from military academies.

So, although you can seek out a situation to make any college free, there are not many opportunities to be guaranteed a free education at any college of your choice.

Are free colleges actually free?

Free colleges typically do not charge tuition, but oftentimes, students will have to pay for housing, food, course materials, and nominal fees. However, students on full-ride scholarships will actually be attending college for free. That is because full-ride scholarships not only pay all of your tuition, but also all of your related expenses. So, you’ll pay nothing for housing, books, fees, and on top of that, you’ll typically receive a stipend for living.

What countries have free college tuition?

Many countries throughout Europe have free college tuition, such as Germany, Iceland, Sweden, and France. Though students will still have to pay some fees for registration and course materials, these countries do not charge tuition to domestic students and either charge nothing or very small amounts to international students.

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