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    5 Ways to Go to College for Free

    By Will Geiger

    Will Geiger is the co-founder of Scholarships360 and has a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. He is a former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed 10,000 admissions applications and essays. Will also managed the Kenyon College merit scholarship program and served on the financial aid appeals committee. He has also worked as an Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut. Will earned his master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania and received his undergraduate degree in history from Wake Forest University.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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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: March 25th, 2024
    5 Ways to Go to College for Free

    We all know that the cost of college is high, with the average private college costing over $55,840 per year. However, before you start worrying about the cost of college and potential student loan debt, you should know that there are ways to go to college for free.

    Keep on reading to learn more about how to go to college for free (or at the least save some serious money!).

    The top ways that students can to go college for free are:

    • Scholarships
    • Need-based grants
    • Tuition-Free Colleges
    • Tuition Remission
    • Attend college abroad

    Keep on reading to learn more about how you can get your degree free!


    Scholarships are a way to pay for college that most students are familiar with. If you win a scholarship, you are essentially earning free money for educational expenses. On the high end, scholarships can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and even offer full rides to students. Full ride and full tuition scholarships are some of the most straightforward ways to receive a free education. These full ride scholarships can include scholarships from individual colleges, as well as scholarship programs like Questbridge and Posse.

    The biggest downside to full ride scholarships is that they are among the most competitive scholarships. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try, but we don’t recommend counting on them.

    Bottom line

    There are different types of scholarships for every type of student. Full ride scholarships can make college free, but you shouldn’t ignore smaller awards that can really add up!

    Need-based Grants

    Need-based grants are another great source of free money for students. These grants can include:

    Colleges will calculate need-based grants based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) or the amount of money that they think your family can afford to spend on college. This means that if your EFC is $0, the college does not expect your family to contribute anything toward your college education. This can result in a very high need-based financial aid package.

    Remember, though, that your need-based financial aid may not be 100% grants and could include student loans, like Federal Direct Student Loans, and federal work study.

    Bottom line 

    To be considered for need-based financial aid, students will have to submit the FAFSA. Additionally, some colleges may require the CSS Profile. Need-based financial aid is an important way to pay for college and can be used in conjunction with merit scholarships.

    Tuition-free colleges

    Tuition-free colleges are a unique type of higher educational institution that do not require students to pay tuition, but instead require students to work at the college or serve afterwards. Note that many of these colleges will still require students to pay for housing and other living expenses.

    Community colleges

    While completely tuition-free community colleges are not yet supported on the federal level, more than half of the U.S/ States offer tuition free community college.  Community colleges are designed for everyone looking to continue their education, including newly graduated high school students (and also, those returning to school, those looking to make a career change, and everyone in between!). If you are a student who is serious about graduating debt-free, consider getting your start at community college–you can go anywhere from there!  

    Related: Which states offer tuition-free community college?

    Work colleges

    Work colleges are a very specific type of tuition-free college. One of the most well-known tuition-free colleges is Berea College in Kentucky. All students admitted to Berea receive the “No-Tuition Promise” which covers one hundred percent of their tuition. Other work colleges include College of the Ozarks and Deep Spring College.

    Service Academies

    Other tuition-free colleges include all of the United States service academies, which are listed below:

    All of these service academies are tuition, room, and board-free, but require graduates to serve in their respective branches of the United States armed forces.

    Tuition remission

    Tuition remission is an educational benefit that is offered to employees of colleges and universities as well as their families. The specifics of tuition remission will vary from college-to-college, but generally they will provide free tuition for the employee, their spouse, and/or their dependent children.

    This can be a huge perk if you are the child or spouse of someone who is employed by a college or university.

    Tuition remission exchanges

    Additionally, some colleges and universities may be part of tuition remission exchanges. This means that the colleges in the exchange agree to offer tuition remission to the employees of other colleges in the exchange (as well as their spouses and dependent children, if applicable).

    Let’s use a real example: the Great Lakes Colleges Association Tuition Remission Exchange Program is an association that includes seventeen colleges, including Grinnell College in Iowa and Willamette College in Oregon. Let’s say one of your parents was an employee at Willamette, but you wanted to attend Grinnell. You would get free tuition if Grinnell accepts you through the tuition exchange program.

    Bottom line

    Tuition remission can be a great deal for students whose parents are employed at a college. Remember though, the tuition exchange will only apply to tuition and the eligibility requirements will be set by the college.

    Attend college abroad

    Why does study abroad have to happen during the fall semester of junior year? What would happen if a student spent their entire college experience abroad (or most of it)? The answer is that you could save a ton of money and even attend college abroad for $0 in tuition. In Germany all students, including international students, can attend university for free. Iceland and Norway also offer tuition-free college to international students.

    Bottom line

    If you are adventurous, a degree abroad can be free or very low cost. Remember, you will still be responsible for paying for housing, living expenses, and travel, but it can be a good deal nonetheless.

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Attending college for free is possible through things like scholarships, grants and other forms of financial aid that you can combine with each other
    • Be sure to look into what universities offer free tuition in exchange for work or service commitments after you graduate
    • Consider starting out at a tuition-free community college
    • If your parent or a close relative works for a college, look into if you qualify for tuition remission
    • Don’t forget that while studying abroad may seem like the more expensive option, it might actually be the cheapest option of them all for you

    Frequently asked questions about ways to go to college for free

    Should I go to college even if I can’t afford it?

    The unfortunate reality for some people is that a traditional four year college won’t be affordable right after high school. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t still pursue some other form of education, such as a certificate program, coding bootcamp, or an associate’s degree. Putting yourself heavily in debt to attend college is not the best idea, as loans can take a long time to pay off and can incur a lot of added interest. Before taking out any significant amount of money for college, thoroughly assess if that is your best option.

    How can I go to college if I have no money?

    Scholarships will be your best friend when you are thinking about paying for college. Scholarships do not have to be paid back and can come from a variety of sources. Lots of students who attend college depend on scholarships to make the total cost of tuition more affordable. Even if you can’t get enough scholarships to cover the whole cost of tuition, you may be able to get the overall cost low enough that you can work part time while in school or take out a minimal amount in loans to cover the remainder.

    How can I afford college without the help of my parents?

    Your parents may not be able to help you with college for a variety of reasons. You should of course be applying to scholarships, but you should also consider filing FAFSA as an independent student. While it can be difficult to file as an independent student, it may very well be worth it if you expect to receive no help from your parents. The FAFSA application will be a great way to receive federal grants which will not need to be repaid. It also will help you assess your loan options.

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