How to Attend College for Free

Quick Answer

College students can get through school for free through standard options, like scholarships and grants, but you may also consider attending a work college or a tuition-free program at a community college, or even joining the military.

Three college students are laughing together while looking at a phone at their college campus.

The cost of attending college can be prohibitive for some students, forcing them to take on student loans to help pay for their education. But with the right strategy, or even a combination of strategies, you may be able to cover your tuition and fees, textbooks and even other living expenses while you're in school without taking on loans.

Here are some of the ways you can get the help you need to attend college for free.

Apply for Scholarships and Grants

Most schools offer various scholarships to their students based on merit, financial need and other factors. If you excelled in a certain subject in high school, look for schools that offer scholarships to students like you. Additionally, make sure you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so the colleges you're considering know your financial situation and can work with you accordingly.

If you exhibit financial need, you may also qualify for federal grant money, which, similar to a scholarship, you typically don't have to repay.

In addition to scholarships and grants offered by the government and your school, you may also research opportunities from private organizations. Websites like Scholarships.com, Fastweb and Unigo maintain databases of millions of scholarships and grants. It may take some time to filter out opportunities that aren't relevant, but you're bound to find some that you're eligible to receive.

Get a Fellowship or Assistantship

If you're planning to attend graduate school, look for fellowship and assistantship opportunities that can help pay for schooling and even some living expenses.

Unlike scholarships, fellowships and assistantships require that you work in exchange for funds. Fellowships are typically designed to encourage students to do research in their field of study, develop new initiatives or receive specialized training.

In contrast, an assistantship involves you providing help to the staff in your program. It may consist of teaching undergraduate courses or assisting with special projects and other assignments that fall under the purview of your program.

A fellowship or assistantship may not be enough to cover all of your costs, but combined with other approaches, you may be able to get everything paid for.

Attend a Work College

There are a number of "work colleges" in the U.S. that integrate work into the college learning experience. In exchange for the work or service provided, these colleges offer free tuition. Most students work on campus, but some schools have off-campus opportunities.

Examples include:

  • Alice Lloyd College
  • Berea College
  • Bethany Global University
  • Blackburn College
  • College of the Ozarks
  • Kuyper College
  • Paul Quinn College
  • Sterling College
  • Warren Wilson College

You may still need to cover room and board and other living expenses, but you can seek out scholarships and other opportunities to help cover those costs. Also, make sure the colleges you're considering have programs for the degree you want to pursue.

Finally, because there aren't many work colleges out there, you may face stiff competition for admission, so make sure you have a backup plan if you don't get in.

Attend a Tuition-Free Community College

According to The College Post, 19 states offer tuition-free programs for community college students who meet certain eligibility requirements. Community colleges aren't nearly as expensive as four-year universities, but you can still save on the average cost of tuition and fees, which is around $3,800 for the 2021-2022 school year.

Look for tuition-free programs in your area and find out whether you're eligible to receive aid.

Note, however, that these programs don't cover non-tuition expenses, and it's only for community college, so you'll need to consider other opportunities if you want to transfer to a four-year program.

Join the Military

If you're thinking about joining the military, you may be able to get up to 100% in tuition assistance. And if you're part of your college's ROTC program, you may be able to qualify for scholarships and stipends to help you cover other costs.

If you're already a member of the military and qualify for the GI Bill, you can get help with tuition and fees, books and supplies, and even living expenses.

Note, however, that there may be limits on how much assistance you can receive for tuition and other expenses. Make sure you understand the program before you join and look for other options if necessary to bridge the gap.

Work for an Employer That Offers Tuition Assistance

The military is not the only employer that offers help with tuition. The IRS allows private employers to offer up to $5,250 in educational benefits, including tuition assistance or reimbursement, without it impacting your taxable income.

If you already have a job, check with your human resources manager to find out if tuition assistance is an option. You may also consider switching to another job if it helps you achieve your goal. Note, however, that some employers may require that you work with the company for a minimum amount of time before you can qualify.

College Costs to Consider

As you look into different ways to get help to attend college for free, it's important to know what you'll need to cover. While tuition and fees are front and center, they're far from the only expenses you'll incur.

You'll also want to consider the following:

  • Textbooks
  • Supplies and equipment
  • Rent
  • Groceries
  • Transportation to and from school
  • Health insurance premiums and medical expenses
  • Other insurance, such as renters and auto policies
  • Lifestyle expenses

As you research and find different ways to cover these expenses, note potential limitations that some options may have. For example, can you use the funds to pay for rent and groceries, or do you have to use it on tuition and fees?

You may also look into other ways to make money while in college to help pay for your educational and living expenses—such as tutoring or becoming a resident assistant—so you can hopefully avoid student loans altogether.

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