How To Go To College For Free

Want a college education but don’t want to go into debt over it? If your interests happen to coincide with the specific curricula at certain “tuition-free” schools, you might actually be able to get away with it. “There are only a handful of such schools in the U.S., which is one reason they are often overlooked by students, parents, and high school guidance counselors during the college search,” says a senior policy analyst at the College Board.

They range from an urban college like the Cooper Union in New York’s East Village to Deep Springs College, a remote, all-male school deep in the California desert. Many are specialized institutions, often focusing on engineering, such as the F.W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.; or on music, like the Curtis Institute in Pennsylvania. A handful–the College of the Ozarks or Berea College in Kentucky–have mandatory work-study programs. Perhaps the most well-known of them is the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., which offers free college tuition in exchange for five years of service after graduation.

“Pssst! Wanna Go to College for Free?” [BusinessWeek]

Slideshow of tuition-free colleges [BusinessWeek]
(Photo: BusinessWeek)


Edit Your Comment

  1. RocktheDebit says:

    Or… you could come from a lower-middle class family and get free tuition at Harvard or the University of Chicago. On the minus side, you have to be really, really smart, but on the plus side, you don’t have to study a very small set of subjects or risk dying for your country.

  2. themanishere says:

    I just love spending tax payer money…hahahaha

  3. smelendez says:

    This is an interesting article, particularly the list of colleges, but it’s not really realistic to portray it as “how to go to college for free.”

    Most of the schools listed are not of interest to the average student, even at a discount. The “chapel requirement” at College of the Ozarks, strict room checks and sex segregation at Alice Lloyd (which is designed to teach Appalachian leaders), Contemporary Christianity class is mandatory at Berea. CUNY’s Teacher Academy teaches 120 people to be teachers in New York City, Cooper Union has under a thousand artists and engineers. Curtis is possibly the most prestigious conservatory in America, but it only has a couple hundred students. Deep Springs is 60 men out in the desert. Olin is a tiny engineering-only school. The service academies make you serve, and Webb is for people into shipbuilding.

    I don’t know about the Appalachian/Christian schools, but Curtis, Olin, Webb and Cooper Union are well known within their fields. I imagine people who want to study teaching in New York know about the teacher academy, and everyone knows the service academies. I guess the author had to pitch the article as “news you can use,” but if you can use it, you probably know it. Much more interesting if it’s new to you.

  4. Lin-Z [linguist on duty] says:

    uh…does that happen a lot in your area or are you just bitter for fun?

    college is expensive, people need all the help they can get. I don’t see the problem with the government helping people to learn things and potentially do something useful.

  5. BigNutty says:

    It will help some but too limited for most. Your best bet is still to get excellent grades and good counseling during high school.

    I know about the stories of reverse discrimination that have hurt some students but if you want to attend college, there are lots of ways to get through without taking out huge student loans.

  6. asherchang2 says:

    @themanishere: Um….. Er….. You’re a F888t888?

    Anyways, these seem to be very narrow opportunities that would only fit a few people… Meh.

  7. Chongo says:

    What about going to West Point and then transfering your last semester?

  8. JustRunTheDamnBallBillick. says:

    @Chongo: You have to repay your tuition if you transfer/fail out/get kicked out of a service academy. There are a few exceptions, but, unless you are injured or come up with a REALLY good reason, you have to repay about 60k for each year you are there (Tuition, room, board and you get a salary).

    There was a story last year about a kid who failed the final physical exam, by not being able to run, and was hit with a 200k bill and couldnt graduate, even though he finished academically.

  9. crnk says:

    @smelendez: I agree. Sure, they are all “free”, but it is a small group of TINY schools with super specialized fields. The only one I would have been interested in would have been Cooper Union, but it is also one of the most selective possible (and pretentious, too).

  10. samurailynn says:

    I don’t consider joining the military to be “free” (as in speech or beer).

  11. theloniousmonster says:

    or….you could attend in an instate school such as the California State Univeristy (3-4k/yr) or the University of California (about 7k a year) and receive an education that is most likely far superior to what you’d find at these schools.

    The article said that room and board isn’t included anyway, so it seems that since you’d be paying this anyway, about 15,000 for 4 years of education is a small price to pay for something far superior.

    Don’t forget about the interest free loans and grants that are given to many students.

  12. EtherealStrife says:

    @theloniousmonster: Your numbers are old, but I second the recommendation.
    And if you’re really strapped, a 2 year can save a bundle and is a ticket into almost any state college / university.

  13. Major-General says:

    @theloniousmonster: All remember that the next time I write that check to pay down the $26K in student loans I have.

  14. Major-General says:

    Damn, that was supposed to be I’ll.

  15. homerjay says:

    “Deep Springs College, a remote, all-male school deep in the California desert”

    Sounds like the setting for some really good gay porn.

  16. hoo_foot says:

    Get your undergrad degree in Europe. Most European schools offer free or reduced tuition to international students, plus some will even have perks like language lessons and grants to help students with moving and living expenses in their new surroundings.

  17. TangDrinker says:

    Or, if you’re a parent – try to get faculty (or in some cases) staff status at a University that allows family to go for free/reduced rates. Not for everyone, but it is something to think about when looking for jobs in academia.

  18. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    I’m going to go for “free” soon. I work for a company that reimburses tuition provided your future degree is job-related. I put “free” in quotes because you do have to pay your costs for the quarter up front then put in for reimbusement based on your grades (A = 100%, B = 80%, C = 60%, D and F = no reimbusement). So all I have to do is make straight A’s in calculus, physics,…..

  19. TWinter says:

    @hoo_foot: Studying for cheap in Europe really only works if you already have some language skills. The UK charges an arm and a leg to non European Union students because there is demand for education in English and plenty of kids from the middle east and east Asia who can pay it.

    Things are free or cheap most places on the continent, but you usually have to pass a language exam of some sort to be admitted, or you get only a semester or two to get your language skills up to snuff.

    And European countries may not recognize a standard high school diploma from the US as being good enough for admission. For example, Americans who want to study in Germany usually need to have at least two years of college level work in the US before the can be admitted.

  20. Dave_Surfs says:

    The Service Academies are great options for some very talented young men and women, but the program is extraordinarily challenging and requires a commitment that goes far beyond a simple search for free tuition. As far as the earlier comment about narrow set of subjects, the Naval Academy offers nearly 40 different majors and I graduated with 160 credits as compared to my brothers who graduated with 110 and 120 from regular civilian schools. Additionally, as far as being “free” we used to joke about the fact that it was $150,000 dollar education shoved up your ass a nickel at a time!

  21. RandomHookup says:

    I found ROTC a lot less stressful than going to a service academy (plus you can keep your hair for your 1st 2 years). I’m sure that the interest in ROTC scholarships is a lot less than back in the 1980’s when no one was shooting at us.

  22. Edinboron says:

    I went the ROTC route, with a full scholarship to Penn State. Army flight school, no wars, the Army even let me out early when the Soviet Union collapsed.

    My wife is a university professor at a state school, so my kids are covered. Somehow, I have the feeling my kids won’t want to go where Mom teaches.

    I recently read an article about a guy who got a job as a janitor/maintenance guy at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the employee perks was free tuition. It took him ten years of part time classes, but he now has a diploma from an Ivy League school and a great story. A story that any prospective employer will eat up.

  23. QuarterlyProphet says:

    I’m not sure that mostly specialized small schools that have stringent acceptance guidelines are as much help as the article would like you to believe. Most kids who can get into a school like Cooper Union probably could get big fat scholarships to plenty of other schools as well.

  24. enm4r says:

    @RandomHookup: But don’t forget to mention that ROTC only covers tuition, plus books and stipend. It doesn’t cover room and board like the academies.

    ROTC is great if you have any interest in the military. It’s risk free for the first year or two (depending on type of scholarship and branch) and while you might be given a hard time, there were always kids that got out after a year or two of having your tuition paid for. While I’d never suggest scamming it, it is 100% worry free for at minimum a year, so it deserves to be at least mentioned.

  25. etinterrapax says:

    Most of these are not realistic options for most students; the article’s misleading. These schools are highly selective. You wouldn’t think so many guys would be interested in the Deep Springs experience, but only 8% of applicants are admitted. Cooper Union takes 10%; West Point 14%; and the Naval Academy 11%. Deep Springs typically attracts–if I remember from the Fiske guide from years ago–men who deferred Ivy admissions to go there.

  26. potatogirl says:

    @Quarterlyprophet: Not so fast with the big fat scholarships elsewhere. Some 4 years ago, I applied to Cooper Union and RISD. Cooper took me in, I ended up going there (and getting my butt kicked, but all is fair when all you’re paying for is student fees, books and supplies, right?). What did RISD offer me? A bunch of loans. But I suppose that’s a situation unique to art schools (“front-loading” being a common practice). I recall applying to real colleges too, and their merit scholarship deals were not full rides, but still pretty generous.
    I’d say I got a pretty good deal, despite sort of not sleeping for a few years.

  27. cashmerewhore says:

    Or work full time for the university and they will normally write off your tuition. My BA was free. I could get a masters for free too. But I’m sick of the office.

  28. tkozikow says:


    Plus…you still have a military obligation which you get to serve as enlisted and not as an officer. I am pretty sure that you can go for two years and opt out before signing your papers, but after that point you owe Uncle Sam some time.

  29. azntg says:

    I’m in the CUNY Teacher Academy program, and as much as CUNY central tries to impose “penalties” for backing out (which our local director effectively negated all of those penalties through clever wording when we signed a “binding” contract), it’s a good way to get a free pass + stipends + academic perks (e.g.: better relationships with some professors, special tutoring available exclusively to us, etc.) while ultimately working on whatever you want to work on. Honestly, from what I can see, almost all of us plans to switch to a different job immediately after fulfilling the teaching requirement.

    The lower middle class to Ivy route works too, as long as you’re considering tuition only. Other costs can wear you down. The worse position to go into school is if your family earns just enough to be barely ineligible for any aid, but not enough to live comfortably if major expenses kick in.

  30. hoosier45678 says:

    @Chongo: You lock into your commitment on the first day of classes of your third year. Prior to that, you can walk away scot free. After that, they will extract their investment one way or another. This story is unverified, but I was told that a wealthy senior that I knew who was kicked out for having blood in his cocaine stream was able to buy off his commitment for $100K.

    Personally, I went three years before being kicked out for being a well-rounded failure (academic F’s, physical F’s and military D’s), and owed nothing except for the car loan I took out. As this institution does not have transfer agreements with the university I ended up at, it took me more than two years after that to finish my degree. Overall I’d have to call the whole thing a big financial negative compared to going to state school and earning real money for the 5 years after you graduate (does not apply to philosophy majors, who will do better in the military).

  31. Snarkysnake says:

    Or you could…

    1) Start saving and investing modestly when your child is born,increase the amount when your pay is increased,argue with the TV when they tell you that you “deserve” that new Lexus/Range Rover etc…And steer your children toward affordable community colleges for the first couple of years so that they can get their bearings (MANY students change majors in the first couple of years)and become good students while not making bad financial decisions that will haunt them for many years.

    2) Put the kid to work when he/she is old enough. Open them a savings account and have them save their own money so that they “have some skin in the game” and they watch every dollar that goes out like they had to earn it.

    3) Shop around. One of the things that struck me when our daughter was college shopping was the variability of prices for near identical curricula.If something is overpriced,let some other parent get ripped off.

    4) Be stubborn. Be an asshole. But whatever you do, explore EVERY OTHER option before letting your kid get hooked on student loan debt.This is the next big meltdown coming down the pike.There are students out there that are walking bankrupts because they owe more than they can ever reasonably hope to repay on their student loans,mortgage,cars …And they’re not 25 years old…Sad

  32. xerotope says:

    Another things a lot of colleges offer is free classes for employees.

    I know some students who after their first or second year go to work for a professor as research staff, full time. They then take two classes a semester (if you take more, you have to pay taxes on the tuition), while earning a decent salary.

    With summer classes, you end up taking maybe an extra semester to finish a degree, but you’re earning money the entire time.

  33. eelmonger says:

    In Florida, we have the Bright Futures Scholarship. It’s extremely easy to get 75% of your education funded and not too much harder to get 100+%. Then when I went to grad school I got an assistanceship which pays for my school and gives me a stipend. I’ve only ever paid for one summer of classes. The point is, there’s plenty of ways to go for “free” without going to these wacky schools.

  34. enm4r says:

    @hoosier45678: Unverified, probably true for the most part. In NROTC, it works in much the same way. I saw kids leave after they had contracts who never had to pay another cent. Granted, they’re still attending the same university, so they didn’t have the drawbacks you had. It generally just came down to the CO and the admins, but the majority left without a bill or any “forced enlistment” that is always threatened, the only ones who did were those who really pissed off the wrong people. Otherwise it tends to be discretionary, sometimes tacking on the stipend, sometimes making it just tuition. Anyone who says there’s a hard and fast rule probably doesn’t know the full scope.

  35. Keter says:

    I wish I could find an alternative for myself…a middle aged adult who got screwed out of college as a youngster (insane parents). I would go in a heartbeat if I could afford it…but I’ve never had both the money and the time together at the same time. I managed to work my way up into a professional job category where I was making top dollar, but since being laid off twice during the dot-bomb bust have been stuck working as a contractor, only getting 3-6 months of work followed by 3-6 months of unemployment…it’s killing me. If I’m working, I’m working 70-90 hours a week…no time or energy for much else. If I’m not working, I don’t dare spend a dime I don’t have to, because I don’t know how long I’ll have to make the money last. There seems to be no way out of the cycle. Meanwhile I watch my less talented peers get all the good jobs — often with educational benefits — while I can’t even get past HR. (What does it say that I get 80% of the jobs I interview for?! It says that the lack of a stupid piece of paper is all the HR bunnies see!) One even break; that’s all I need, but I can’t find it. Free or very cheap college, particularly something self-paced that I could work into my insane work schedule, would be the solution…but it doesn’t seem to exist. I’m sure I’m not alone in this need. :o(

  36. 75Sasha says:

    Does anyone have any recommendations for where to look up grants and scholarships for Grad Level work? Specifically Engineering and Chemistry. Many thanks.

  37. RandomHookup says:

    @enm4r: True that it doesn’t cover room & board, but some schools will cover it as an incentive to 4 year scholarship recepients. Well worth it not to have to live the academy life 24×7 for 4 years (and only have to wear a uniform for 2 hrs. for 2 years). For my first 2 years of college, I had a full academic scholarship, too, so I loved the day we would go pay fees as I got a check for standing in line.

    When I was active duty, I did see a handful of ROTC drops who were forced to go in as enlisted. They weren’t too happy, but it does happen. ROTC usually tries the ‘repay the money’ route and I’ve seen plenty who were all too happy to repay. A couple played the ‘I’m gay’ card and waltzed away without a problem.

  38. Drivinmom says:

    Yes Florida has Bright Futures but remember room and board are not included and this ia about 10,000 per year.