How to Go to College for Free

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Updated on Wednesday, August 12, 2015

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My education cost me a whopping $206k in student loans. I cannot begin to tell you how painful this financial burden is for me. But as it turns out, there are actually places where you can go to college for free and avoid the pain of student loans. Who knew?

You may be able to go to college for free if: 1) the college offers free tuition to everyone, 2) the college offers free tuition based on academic scholarship, 3) the college offers free tuition based on your background (ethnicity or location), or 4) the college offers free tuition for low-income families. It’s also important to look at whether the school offers full-tuition free or a free ride. Both are nice, but they’re different – the former means you’re responsible for room and board and the latter means that room and board is generally covered. This post discusses both types of free tuition, so for some of the colleges listed below, even if they’re “free”, you may still have to pay for room and board.

Free College for Everyone

Macaulay Honors College at CUNY

In the United States, you can go to Macaulay Honors College at CUNY for free. To qualify, you must be a New York State resident. If you meet the residency requirement, then as a Macaulay Honors College at CUNY student, you will receive a full tuition scholarship. This excludes living expenses and some additional fees (for technology and activities, which tend to be under $350). For more details see this page.

Webb Institute

The Webb Institute, located in Glen Cove, New York is a private engineering college that only offers one degree – naval architecture and marine engineering. This may sound limiting but if you go there, you receive a full tuition scholarship for academics. You will have to pay for room and board, but you may qualify for financial aid.

Barclay College

Barclay College is a Christian college in Haviland, Kansas, where you can earn a degree in a number of pastoral fields. You can attend Barclay College for free if you live in campus housing.

U.S. Air Force Academy

You can go to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado for free. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting in. To get in, you must be nominated by a member of Congress or the Vice President of the United States (talk about competition)! But once you’re in, you will receive a scholarship that’s valued at $416,000 for your tuition and living expenses. You are expected to fulfill a military service commitment for eight years after graduation.

Cooper Union

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, located in New York City, New York, offers half-tuition scholarships to all its students. Prior to 2014, full tuition scholarships were awarded, but under financial pressure, the college changed the program to awarding half-tuition scholarships. Getting in to Cooper Union, however, is very difficult – only 7% of applicants are accepted and acceptance is based solely on merit. But once you’re in, part of your tuition is paid for.


You can go to college for free in Germany because Germany no longer charges tuition for college – even for international students (more on this story here). It’s quite incredible. One caveat is that “free” is mostly free –there are some fees for cover health insurance and living expenses that you’ll have to pay. Even if you spend $6,000-$7,000 a year on these expenses (like in this story), that is still be a huge financial win compared to paying for college in the United States. And this doesn’t mean you need to be fluent in German. There are English-speaking programs available.

Free College for Academics

Curtis Institute of Music

At the highly competitive Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, you will receive a merit-based full tuition scholarship if you attend the school (regardless of need). You can even have your living expenses paid for by applying for financial assistance (awarded based on need).

National Merit Scholar (or Semifinalist)

There are over 50 colleges that award full tuition scholarships for National Merit Scholars or National Merit Semifinalists (and room and board is included at some institutions). The College Matchmaker published a list of 53 colleges that offer this award. If you become a National Merit Scholar or Semifinalist, you have tremendous opportunities to go to college for free.

State School Scholarships

Many state schools offer full academic scholarships based on merit. For example, at Louisiana State University at Shreveport, freshmen are eligible for the Louisiana Scholarship, which pays for full tuition. To qualify, you must have an ACT score of 30 or higher and a GPA of 3.5 or higher. Another example is at the University of Alabama, where you can receive a full tuition scholarship if you have an ACT score above 30 and a GPA of 3.5 or higher by applying for the Presidential Scholar Award. There are many more states that offer similar scholarships, but keep in mind that these scholarships usually have a residency requirement (and different rules for out of state residents). This is something to be mindful of as you apply for in-state or out-of-state schools. These scholarships are huge, so don’t miss an opportunity and be sure to research your state and school before committing.

Free College for Background

You may be able to go to college for free if you come from a particular background. Some schools offer free tuition if you’re from a particular region or from a particular ethnicity.

Native American Students

In Michigan, students with a Native American Background can attend college for free through the state’s Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver program. To qualify, you must be a state resident and you must be at least 25% Native American and enrolled in a Federally recognized tribe. This program pays for full tuition at any public Michigan 2 year or 4 year program.

Other states besides Michigan offer similar tuition waivers for Native American students, such as New York and North Carolina. It’s worth your while to research whether your state has this benefit (or gets it in the future) if you are Native American. Similarly, there may be tuition waiver programs for other backgrounds, like Eskimo and Aleut. If you have a minority background or a background that could receive tuition waiver, keep this in mind as you apply for schools so you don’t miss out on free tuition.

Appalachian region

The Alice Lloyd College, located in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, offers free tuition to students who reside in the Appalachian region (108 counties). As a student, you must complete at least 160 hours of work-study in the community each semester. Otherwise, if you come from the Central Appalachian County Service Area, you will receive free tuition.

Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky, offers full tuition scholarships to all students with financial need. Berea College “admits only academically promising students, primarily from Appalachia, who have limited economic resources.” Also, if you participate in the work-study program at Berea, you can earn enough to cover your room and board.

Free College for Low Income

There are many schools that offer free tuition to students whose family income is below a certain dollar amount. Below is a list of examples of schools that do this, but there may be more schools that offer free tuition for low-income families that are not listed below. If you’re applying to schools and your family is low income, then make sure to research whether you can get tuition for free.

Ivy League Schools

If you get into an Ivy League or, similarly prestigious school, and your family is considered low-income, then you may be on your way to college for free. In this CNN article, you’ll see that you can get tuition for free at Stanford if your family has an annual income and assets of less than $125,000. Free room and board is included if your family makes less than $65,000.

Similarly, at Harvard, if your family makes less than $65,000, the tuition is free, and if your family makes between $65,000 and $150,000 the contribution expectation is 0-10%.

Yale students whose families make less than $65,000 receive free tuition, and Princeton students whose families make less than $140,000 do not pay tuition.

College of the Ozarks

College of the Ozarks is located in Point Lookout, Missouri and offers free tuition to all of its students. However, only students with financial need are admitted. In order to receive free tuition, students must work at least 15 hours per week when school is in session and 40 hours per week for two weeks when school is not in session. Tuition is free, but you have to work for it!

Soka University

At the liberal arts college, Soka University, located in Aliso Viejo, California, all students whose family income is $60,000 or less receives free tuition (room and board fees still apply).

Texas A&M

Texas A&M University, located in College Station, Texas, offers free tuition to families with income less than $60,000.

Doing Your Homework Can Pay Off Big Time

As it turns out, it is possible to go to college for free. Some colleges offer free tuition to all students, while other colleges offer free tuition based on academics, background, and income. The point to take away from this is that you can avoid tremendous student loan debt and still get a college education. It pays off to do your research.

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