Considering just how expensive college is, it would be great to have some way to study in college for free. There are few ways to about doing college for free, but in this post, I’ll go over the easiest ones for just about anyone.
The following are ways to do college for free:
- Apply for US Federal and State scholarships
- Enroll into a work-study US college
- Get admission to University of the People
- Attend free college in Germany, or Norway
- Take a job where your employer pays college tuition
- Join the US Armed Forces/ Military
Even though college tuition itself would be covered with these approaches, there is still the issue of living expenses. Online schools or work-study colleges cover the room and board expenses in some cases and so does the US military.
College for Free
- SCHOLARSHIPS: Federal and state scholarships are applicable to most US residents. This process begins by completing the FAFSA application either online or by paper. International students can avail other scholarships that are college-specific. Note that most scholarships only cover tuition costs and not the living expenses.
- WORK-STUDY TUITION-FREE COLLEGES: There are about a handful of work-study colleges in the US such as Berea college, Deep Springs college and so on. These colleges expect students to work on campus or in the community for about 20 hours every week. Some of them also cover free room and board for additional work hours. There are limited seats and these colleges are high in demand.
- UNIVERSITY OF THE PEOPLE: University of the People is a US-based college and many students in the US and from all over world are benefitting from this college. The college board and faculty are some of the best and there is only a small fee for writing each exam. University of the People does NOT have the typical regional accreditation but is accredited by the DEAC (Distance Education Accrediting Commission).
- COUNTRIES WITH FREE COLLEGE: European countries such as Germany, Iceland and Norway provide free college education not only to their citizens but to students from all over the world. The main catch is that living expenses tend to be quite high in most parts of Europe. Also, some of these degrees are taught in the local language though some degrees are available in English.
- EMPLOYMENT: Some US employers cover college expenses for their employees. This is especially so for in-demand fields such as technology or energy and petroleum industries.
- US MILITARY: Military ROTC scholarships cover tuition, room and food expenses along with even the textbook costs are covered. Military veterans or kids of military veterans can also qualify for scholarships under the GI Bill.
Work-Study/ Tuition-Free Colleges
But there are a few catches that one needs to be aware of:
a) Many of these colleges are highly selective, which in turn means that only a small percentage of applicants are accepted into these colleges.
b) A number of them have work-study programs that require students to work a fixed number of hours every week to be eligible for the free tuition. For some students, this might be ideal as they would start gaining valuable work experience. But for others, dedicating the college years towards only studying might be the best option. It all depends on what is ideal for the student.
c) Many of the colleges still charge the students for room-and-board. Some colleges are more flexible, and may consider additional work hours in exchange for free room-and-board.
d) Many of the free-tuition options are targeted towards in-state students, so it may not work for out-of-state students.
e) Some of these colleges have additional requirements to qualify for the aid or scholarship, including biblical studies or need-based financial support.
University of the People
There is another online US college known as the University of the People (UoPeople) which offers free tuition and is accredited by the Distance Education Council. There are four degree majors that the college offers currently, namely, Business Administration, Computer Science, Teaching and Health Sciences. But UoPeople does not have the typical regional accreditation like most other recognized colleges in the US.
Many of the professors and curriculum developers come from Top Ivy League colleges and this makes their degree valuable. The college has lenient admission requirements but it would require hard work to complete a degree here. Students at this college come from many countries across the world. The only fee students pay is a small one for taking each exam. These are all factors that you need to consider before deciding whether UoPeople is right for you.
Very Affordable But Not Free Colleges
If you want more flexibility with when you study, when you work and to manage your schedules independently, a more suitable option would be one of the colleges that offer degree completion programs.
These colleges offer many low-cost ways to acquire college credits and for completing your US college degree. They are the most affordable, regionally accredited colleges with many classroom options; their low-cost and inherent flexibility make them a great college option to consider.
The cost at the flexible colleges is so little that, with adequate planning, you could complete a 4 year bachelor’s degree for a cumulative cost of under US $10,000.
There are a handful of these flexible colleges in the US and they have broad admission requirements. These are all good colleges with reduced out-of-state or in-state tuition. Most adults with at least a few prior college credits and high school completion certificate are eligible for enrolling into the flexible colleges.
Since the colleges are all regionally accredited, their credits are easily transferable, are good for getting jobs after degree completion, or for further graduate studies. To get a complete list of these flexible colleges with degree completion programs, please go through this article on Colleges with Top 10 Online College Degrees.
Free and Low-cost College Credits
Degree completion colleges accept many free and low-cost online courses such as Saylor courses or CLEP for college credits, and the textbooks are also inexpensive. And since they do not have residency requirements, there are no additional room and board costs, and you can simply stay with family for the duration of your college degree.
In many ways, this is much better than the other tuition-free colleges as there are no catches or additional requirements.
Factors To Evaluate College Affordability
Here are the top 10 factors to consider when determining whether a college is affordable and has no hidden catches.
i) Number of credits-transfer permitted
If you had earlier completed any college-level courses, the best way to save money and time is to get those prior credits transferred to the enrolled college. In an effort to maximize their revenue from college courses, many brick-and-mortar colleges are restrictive in this area and either do not allow much credits transfer, or make the process complicated.
Some colleges are also vague about their credits-transfer policies which forces sincere students to waste a lot of time, energy and money. Such students are forced to go back-and-forth with the college staff for getting their prior credits transferred.
ii) Accepted paths for college credits
Look for colleges that allow students to write standardized exams such as CLEP and DSST for acquiring college credits. These exams can be taken for less than US $100 per exam and completing each exam can earn you anywhere between 3 to 6 credits.
MOOC course providers such as Edx, Coursera or Udacity also have some of their courses approved by ACE (American Council of Education). ACE-recommended courses are directly approved for college credits by a vast majority of colleges across the US.
iii) Mandatory college credits or courses
In most US colleges, students have to undertake all the courses in a classroom setting at the college. Some colleges have an online option apart from the physical classroom option. This can add up to a lot of tuition costs and is one of the main reasons for the exorbitant rise in college expenses.
Some degree completion colleges have a small portion of credits that need to be completed directly via the college’s courses. So determining the number of such in-college credits requirement and their overall cost becomes important.
For example, if a college requires say 20 credits to be undertaken at the college, and if the tuition cost per credit is say US $400, this would cost the student US $8000.
Some of these colleges have no such mandatory credits requirement. This results in a significant reduction of the overall college costs.
iv) Residency requirement/ Location dependency
Many of the high-priced colleges with large campuses require students to attend classes at the college campus almost every day. In addition to the unwanted hardships to adult students by doing this, many also end up spending a lot of money on their room and board expenses.
Apart from the college tuition costs, the one other reason for the high cost of college is this inflexible residency requirement. Many students spend between US $8000 to US $12,000 on their college living expenses per year.
At most of the flexible colleges, there is no residency requirement so students can study from anywhere. A few of them provide options by which students can attend college at the campus, but it is not mandatory; online classes are equally accepted at these colleges.
Students can live anywhere in the world and still complete a college degree at a flexible college. And since there are so many ways to acquire college credits, these degrees have a good reputation similar to many of the high-quality traditional colleges.
v) Application fee, Enrollment fee, Student Services fee, Graduation fee
Many colleges have a number of additional costs thereby taking many students by utter surprise. Before enrolling into a college, please find out the amounts of all these additional charges apart from the tuition fees. Enrollment fee is generally charged once at the time of initial enrollment into the degree program.
Student services fee is either payable every semester or annually at most colleges. This covers the general advisement and other services provided to the students by the college administrative staff.
At the degree completion colleges, there is a small application fee, generally less than US $100. Some of them charge an annual enrollment fee to keep the student status active and this also covers the student services.
vi) Tuition cost
For undergraduate degrees, many colleges charge over US $400 per credit. For a 3-credit course, this would come to about US $1200 or more, and textbooks and supplies would be extra. Some colleges charge a flat fee annually, but it generally comes to at least a minimum of US $400 or more per credit in any case.
Though the flexible colleges also charge about US $400 or more per credit, they do not mandate where or how students decide to acquire their college credits. To reduce costs, students can take more exams such as CLEP, take low-cost ACE-approved online courses and so on.
For all such learning, there is no per-credit charge by the college itself. CLEP exams cost less than US $100 for a 3-credit exam apart from approximately another US $100 for the cost of books and test proctoring.
vii) Prior-learning (or) Portfolio Assessment
This option of using prior non-accredited learning towards meeting degree requirements is only available at the degree completion colleges and not at most other colleges. There is generally a 3-credit course that teaches students about this assessment process. Most of these colleges would allow you to earn about 50% of credits via prior learning.
If a student has a lot of non-accredited college-level prior learning, say years and years of work experience in the same field as their college major, this can be a great cost-saver! Most colleges charge a flat fee for portfolio assessment, or a reduced fee for a fixed number of credits evaluated.
viii) Enrollment schedule
Most traditional colleges allow student enrollments only once a year and this generally happens a month or more after the high school year is completed. So if a student for some reason misses the application deadlines, he or she would have to wait one whole year to enroll at the college, or decide to go elsewhere.
In contrast, flexible colleges have a rolling enrollment schedule. Many of them allow students to enroll anytime of the year, and some of them have three or more times each year as the enrollment window!
This can greatly improve the flexibility of these colleges, reduce time for degree completion, and reduce the overall degree costs. The sooner a student finishes college, the sooner he or she can get a well-paying job.
ix) Student support
Most colleges nowadays have a lot of administrative staff in addition to the teaching staff. Most of them provide guidance and assistance on matters outside of the actual classroom teaching. But the quality of the student support can vary greatly across colleges. So be sure to find out more about this from other alumni students or do your own research by talking to the administrative staff.
The administrative staff can have a huge impact on your college studies. They are generally involved in transferring your prior credits, guiding you on your core and elective courses, and in scheduling your course enrollments.
Some also handle your college fee payments and so much more. Any ambiguity or lack of clarity in any of these areas can be detrimental to your degree completion. So please be sure to check this out before choosing your ideal college.
x) Evaluation, Grading and Course Rigor
If the quality of the courses is high and the professors and staff are helpful, students can greatly benefit from their college learning. Grading and evaluation of projects & assignments are also important. Very restrictive grading and evaluation would highly demotivate students and force them to spend additional time and money re-taking any tests or exams. Too lax a grading or evaluation, and the objective of acquiring college learning itself would be lost.
Generally, online forums or reviews, or speaking with alumni can help shed light on these factors at your target colleges. In my experience, many degree completion colleges have well-balanced grading & evaluation services which are quite reasonable.