What qualifies you for free college?

College is expensive, but there are ways to ease the burden and attend college for free. (iStock)

A college education in the U.S. comes at a high cost. Tuition rates have reached record highs over the past few years, with no relief in sight. So, it’s not surprising that many students and their parents worry about paying for a college education, especially when undergraduate tuition, room and board, and fees at public colleges and universities in the U.S. averaged $18,383 in 2019, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

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The price to attend private college also soared to $44.662, or more than twice that of a public institution. Tuition averaged $47,419 at nonprofit four-year colleges. These figures represent the full rate for tuition and fees before factoring in any scholarships or financial aid.

The good news? There are ways to ease the burden and attend college for free. Here’s how.

1. Scholarships and grants 

Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, provides a little insight into applying for and winning scholarships and grants.

“Among some of the most sought after scholarships are offered by private companies, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Intel. The application process is often lengthy, and most scholarships are awarded to students based on an intended academic course of study, minority status, financial need or past accomplishments. Still, they are available if you put in the work,” he said.

To find a scholarship or grant program, use the U.S. Department of Labor’s free search tool. Or, go to Sallie Mae and search for scholarships and grants. Like scholarships, grants don’t need to be repaid. The easiest way to find grants is to submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or go to Grants.gov.  The trick is to never stop applying.

Planning to attend college and need a loan?

Visit Credible today to view an online rates table to compare fixed and variable interest rates and find the best options. It won’t hurt your credit score, and you’ll get a better idea of the best path for your education.

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Credible also makes it easy to add a cosigner to your loan application and compare multiple lenders to see which one gets you the best loan terms and a lower interest rate.

2. Employer-assisted tuition

In an employer-assisted tuition program, all or part of the cost to attend college is paid by the employer. Often used as a recruiting tool, these programs also benefit employers with employees who are focused on learning and developing new skills. Some employers cover the cost of all a student’s classes, even if they have nothing to do with the job. Other employers will only cover the cost of classes relevant to a student’s current position.

3. Federal work-study

The Federal Work-Study (FWS) program is offered at more than 3,400 participating post-secondary institutions. Students can be employed by the college, a private for-profit or nonprofit organization, or a federal, state or local public agency. Most often the employer or the college will pay up to 50 percent of a student’s wages under FWS. Sometimes the FWS will pay 100 percent of an employee’s wages for jobs as mathematics or reading tutors. Both undergraduate and graduate students with financial need can participate.

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4. Working on-campus

Cyrus Vanover, the author of "Earn a Debt-Free College Degree," says that it's definitely possible to earn a free degree, and it's not as hard to do as students may think.

“A simple strategy to earn a free degree is to work a full-time job for a college or university that offers free tuition to its employees. Many schools offer jobs that don't require a college degree, like research assistants, administrative assistants, custodians, grounds maintenance personnel, and others. Some colleges even extend that same benefit to the children of employees.”

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5. Tuition waivers

A tuition waiver essentially cancels out tuition and fees associated with attending college. Waivers allow students to get an education if they meet certain criteria–like if they are veterans, former foster children, non-traditional students, STEM students among other groups. Most waivers cover tuition and fees, but students may have to cover their living expenses while attending college.

6. In-demand job assistance 

A growing number of colleges and universities are offering tuition assistance for high-demand jobs. For example, in exchange for a three-year employment contract with a local hospital, the University of Portland will cover more than 80% of nursing students’ tuition.

Several other programs, like the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, offer elementary school teachers loan forgiveness or cancellation options. Likewise, law schools, such as the Columbia Law LRAP, offer loan forgiveness for a commitment to a career in public service law for more than three years.

7. Military member

Most branches of the military offer a free college education. Requirements vary, but students can be active duty or in school, and they must commit to serve for up to 10 years after graduation. Most programs are organized through the Department of Veterans Affairs. They include education programs like the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Montgomery GI Bill for active-duty personnel and veterans.

Final word

Even with all the opportunities to attend college for free, up to 70 percent of students still pay tuition, which means they need to research student loan opportunities. For students with good credit, many private lenders, like SoFi and Discover, may approve student loans at lower interest rates.  Students who haven’t built up much credit may want to consider asking a parent or family member to co-sign for a student loan.

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Not sure how long it will take you to pay off your loan?

Credible’s online student loan calculator can help you and your family determine your cost to attend college.