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How to go to college for free

Grants, tuition waivers, fellowships and more ways to study without the burden of debt on your back.

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Cost can be the highest barrier of entry when it comes to college. But you can find programs and organizations to help minimize that barrier — including some that provide more than just free tuition.

Grants

The federal government, most states, many colleges and lots of private organizations offer grants to students who can demonstrate financial need. Unlike with loans, you don’t need to repay grants.

To apply, you typically need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile.

Where to find grants for college

Full-ride scholarships

Full-ride scholarships cover not only tuition, but other expenses like room and board, school supplies, books and travel. You may be able to get a full-ride scholarship based entirely on merit, but there are also need-based full-ride scholarships and those for specific areas of study like nursing or STEM. You can find these through private organizations, as well as through your state government or college.

Top full-ride scholarships

Fellowships

Like grants and most scholarships, fellowships don’t need to be repaid. They’re typically offered by schools or outside organizations and open to graduate or doctoral students in a specific area of study. However, there are an increasing number of fellowships offered to recent college graduates as well.

Like with grants and scholarships, these are typically available through your state government, college or outside private organizations.

Federal Work-Study Program

The Federal Work-Study Program provides financial aid to students who meet certain eligibility requirements and demonstrate financial need. These programs involve working a job at your school or within the community for a set number of hours per week for federal minimum wage or more.

To apply, you must submit the FAFSA. Your school might also require you to provide other financial aid documents in order to qualify.

The Federal Work-Study Program — explained

Employer assistance programs

Many companies now offer tuition assistance to employees, including places like UPS, Walmart and Starbucks. Typically, these companies will contribute a set amount per year toward tuition and fees — up to a lifetime cap.

If your employer requires you to take a class, it will likely pay for it. And while not as common, some companies will even cover your full cost of attendance.

Student loan repayment benefits through your employer

If you have student loans and have already graduated from college, you may be able to take advantage of student loan repayment benefits through your employer. Companies like Live Nation, Fidelity Investments and Peloton offer monthly student loan repayment assistance — up to an annual and lifetime limit.

15 companies that offer student loan repayment benefits

Student loan forgiveness programs

There are a slew of student loan forgiveness programs open to all types of professions — from teachers and nurses to lawyers and doctors. Most service-based forgiveness programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) require you to commit a certain number of years to working at a nonprofit or other organization that serves underrepresented communities. But you can also qualify for loan forgiveness on your federal student loans by signing up for an income-driven repayment plan and making 20 to 25 years of repayments.

10+ student loan forgiveness programs

ROTC and military service

If you're a high school student or already enrolled in college, the military and Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) offer scholarships based on merit and grades.

ROTC scholarships consist of:

  • Full-tuition scholarships
  • Two-, three- and four-year scholarship options based on the time left to complete your degree
  • Scholarships for room and board instead of tuition
  • Monthly living expense stipends
  • Stipends for fees and books

Military personnel may also qualify for several government and private assistance programs to go back to school after returning home from active duty. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Military Tuition Assistance. Cover up to 100% of your college tuition through this federal program offered to eligible members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.
  • Post 9/11 GI Bill. This program offers full and partial tuition benefits, as well as a monthly housing stipend and annual book stipend, to qualifying veterans through the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

7 financial aid options for veterans

Tuition waivers

You may be able to get some or all of your college tuition charges waived by your college if any of the following ring true for you:

  • You were adopted or in foster care. Some states offer free tuition to in-state colleges for young adults who were in the foster care system. The National Foster Parent Association and Foster Care to Success also offer tuition waivers to qualifying incoming college students.
  • You faced hardship. A few states like Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Connecticut offer to waive tuition to qualifying students who overcome significant adversity. This can include surviving natural disasters or having lost a parent during 9/11.
  • You're a veteran. Some colleges also offer tuition waivers to veterans and their immediate family members.
  • You're part of a federally recognized tribe. You may be able to qualify for a tuition waiver from your state or college if you're a member of a North American tribe. The University of Montana and Fort Lewis College in Colorado both provide waivers to eligible Native American students.
  • You have a disability. Some colleges offer tuition waivers to students with a disability, including those with visual or auditory impairments. 

Don’t forget to look into tuition-free colleges

Not every college charges tuition. Though they're not as common — and many require part-time work to offset the cost — you can find tuition-free colleges around the country.

Check out our top picks with our guide to 10 colleges that don’t charge tuition.

Study abroad for free

You're not limited to just studying in the US for free. Here are three countries that offer completely free tuition to international students wishing to study abroad:

  • Germany. While you may still have to pay a low administration fee, Germany nixed tuition at all public universities for both local and international students back in 2014.
  • Iceland. Public universities in Iceland also don't charge tuition for international students or locals. All you’ll pay is an administration or small registration fee.
  • Norway. Locals and international students can also attend a public university in Norway tuition-free. You may still have to pay a small fee — usually under $100 — each semester.

Bottom line

If you want to go to college without the burden of debt on your back, there are ways to make it happen. Some options are for students with financial need. Others are based on merit or require a work commitment.
Even if you can't go to college completely free, you can reduce the costs by looking into scholarship opportunities and save in the long run by comparing student loan options.

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