Go to College for Free

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Last updated on April 30, 2019 Comments: 18

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I enjoyed my experience as an undergraduate at a “state-assisted, privately governed” university. As I did not live in that university’s state prior to attending, my tuition fees were higher than many of my classmates’ fees. To attend the same school as a non-resident, the total cost, including tuition, residency, and fees, is now almost $40,000 a year. Financial aid is available to lower the cost, but a fee like that can be tough on the wallet. College degrees are still worthwhile investments, but then less you can pay, the better you’re off.

During my junior year of high school — a time long enough ago that my memories hardly seem real — a visited many campuses, in state and out of state, to find the right fit for me. I intended to teach music in a high school as a career, and this course of study required auditions, and I tried to audition in person for most of the colleges I was applying for.

It may have been a mistake, but during this process, I don’t remember once thinking about money. My parents didn’t tell me I needed to remain in state to keep tuition costs lower. They did not require that I attend a low-cost school. There was no school that I crossed off my extensive list due to the price of attending. And my ignorance of the financial consequences led me to reject my second-choice school that called to offer me more financial aid (in the form of grants, not loans, I assume) after I decided to attend my first-choice school but before formally accepting. Had I accepted the financial aid offer from the second-choice school, I could have most likely saved myself and my parents — who ended up taking out loans — some money.

A few years out of school, I still had loans to pay off, and I was no longer working in the field for which I have an undergraduate degree. Some might view my college experience as a waste of money. I could have earned a degree for much less money and ended up with the same type of experience after college. It’s hard to say with any confidence what my life would have been like if I had attended a different school. I might have had an easier time financially and would have never been inspired to start writing about improving my financial condition, for example.

I have the benefit of hindsight now, but my satisfaction with my experiences and the eventual result — thus far — makes it difficult for me to say I’d do anything differently about my college education given the chance. For others whose lives are close to me, now or in the future, I would more seriously pursue ways to make their college degrees as inexpensive as possible, perhaps even free. As college degrees become more widespread, the graduate degree will be more important from an educational perspective for getting the best careers, and extracurricular experience — working or volunteering — will play an even greater role. The undergraduate degree, therefore, will become not much more than a first step, and differentiation between schools will be less important.

Here are some suggestions for getting that undergraduate degree for free or at a very low cost.

Attend an Ivy League school. Columbia University is fourth on the Campus Grotto list of expensive colleges for the 2012-13 academic year, but most Ivy League schools often provide opportunities for families earning income under a certain threshold to attend for free through grants, and the benefit eliminates the need for student loans. That is the benefit of attending a private school that has an impressive endowment. While public schools are often touted as less expensive than private schools, many private school students do not pay the full advertised cost.

Of course, attending an Ivy League school isn’t as simple as deciding to apply. Schools whose programs are in high demand have a very competitive admissions process. And there is a popular opinion, particularly among those who have not attended an Ivy League school, that the experience is over-rated.

Attend a military service academy. Also very competitive, military service academies offer taxpayer-funded education — free to the student, except for the portion of their own taxes that go towards military education. In return for the education, graduating students typically must spend more than five years in military service. The lack of tuition fees keeps students’ wallets happy, but I suppose some students, though combat service is only one option of service, could end up paying with their lives.

Attend a school without tuition. Many schools don’t charge tuition to any of their students, although room and board could be a cost if living on campus. Cooper Union in New York City, where my father attended college, offers a full scholarship to all undergraduate students. You might include the military service academies in this category, but many of the other schools that offer tuition-free enrollment or full scholarships are highly specialized, like the Curtis Institute of Music.

If you can’t find a free option, reduce your costs. I may not be able to bypass the stigma of a community college, but I have to admit it’s a great option for saving money. Many students attending community college can continue to live at home, saving on room and board costs. Living at home delays the inevitable need to gain experience living as an independent adult, but living in a dorm room doesn’t always fit that goal, anyway. You can attend a community college for two years and transfer your credits to a different college or university, and many times you might be able to find there are more scholarship and grant opportunities available to those who transfer in as a third-year student.

If you don’t care about receiving a diploma, find free classes online. Traditional colleges and universities are following the paths paved by for-profit institutions who have been prevalent in online learning. (These online universities are in turn building on research about academic distribution and distance learning pioneered in the traditional universities.) As a result, there is more competition for online classes, and in some cases, courses are available for free. It may not yet be possible to piece together a full four-year curriculum from free information online alone, but this concept is going to be the future of undergraduate education for many degrees as even traditional universities look to cut costs.

According to the Pew Research Center, college debt after graduation is at an all-time high. More families than ever have student loans, almost one in five. 19 percent might not sound like that much, but it’s a percentage that doubled over the past twenty years. Student loans limit your ability to quickly use income you receive — however much or how little — to put aside for your future. It took me years to eliminate my college debt, and I know my mother was still working to pay off the loan she took out to help pay for my education for years.

Addendum. For more about attending college without debt and other non-conforming insights, check out the podcast interview featuring Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents.

Photo: The U.S. Army
Pew Research Center

Article comments

Anonymous says:

When I was in college when,My family’s financial situation was not good, but my parents didn’t tell me I needed to remain in state to keep tuition costs lower. They did not require that I attend a low-cost school. I am very grateful to my parents.

Anonymous says:

Another useful tip in regards to finding classes online is the edX program at http://edx.org.

All of these courses have already started, but it isn’t too late to attempt to get the completion certificate. Even if you don’t, the material will remain available for anyone to access.

Anonymous says:

If you want a graduate degree, there are MD/PhD programs that will pay you to go to school and you get out in 7 years with both degrees. Rockefeller University has one, but there are others.

Anonymous says:

Dropping out of high school and joining the workforce full time by age 15 was the best thing I could have ever done.
I am now a senior network engineer that runs circles around college grads that join our company.

They don’t make books or courses teaching the experience that I have.

Anonymous says:

Great article and I can relate as the parent of two current college students and one college grad (who is gainfully employed and self-supporting 2+ years later). If your child is a top-flight student I suggest checking out private schools (including the Ivy’s). My oldest received a full-tuition ride (roughly $19,000 per semester) and my second one received three very similar financial aid offers from three top-flight private universities. In both cases they did far better than they would have at any of the public universities they applied to, even our in-state flagship the University of Illinois. One point that we learned in this process was that merit aid offers (for those schools who give this type of aid) can vary widely even among schools who are very similar in terms of cost and quality.

Anonymous says:

On vacation recently, I met some students from the College of the Ozarks near Branson, MO. They don’t pay tuition but all of the students are required to work campus jobs. Looked like a beautiful campus and seems like a great idea.

Anonymous says:

If you are 16-24, and have a HS diploma or GED or even if not you can enroll in Job Corps for a total of 3 years, get trained in a basic trade (which if you bust ass can probably complete in 1 year) and apply for their college program for the last two years and walk away with an associates or more. All for free.

Anonymous says:

When I lived in VA I read that residents could go to UVA at a huge discount……it’s a very good school. Residency status did not take that long. It definitely paid to move there and establish residency before applying.

Anonymous says:

Another option is delayed entry. I worked for two years before starting college and saved the earnings. The delay gives you time to think through what you really want to do with your life. Putting your own hard earned cash towards your education makes you really appreciate it.

Anonymous says:

Great suggestions. Don’t forget, if you work for a university or have a parent who does, you can get tuition 50% off or free as a benefit.

Luke Landes says:

Great tip. In fact, I almost forgot; that was the case in my family.

Anonymous says:

Another option is self-pased online education. You can complete a basic undergraduate degree faster if you put in the effort and then move onto your graduate programs. Many online based schools charge tuition as a set amount per quarter. You can complete as many classes in that time as your time, schedule, effort allow. Theoretically you could complete an entire degree in one quarter if you were able to complete all the work and testing.

Another option to cut down on tuition is to take as many challenge tests as you can. Many (if not most) universities will allow you to take tests of many lower level classes to get either credit or a waiver. These tests are usually a lot cheaper than the classes themselves. It saves time and money as you would then have fewer courses to take for your degree.

Anonymous says:

Consider becoming a Resident Assistant for free room and board. Or getting an on-campus job to help pay for college.

Anonymous says:

Community college may be another option for the first 2 years. Tuition is much less expensive and yo get your required classes out of the way for a lot less.
The advantage for the military academies is a job when you graduate. It may be a job some may not want, but it pays fairly well.

Anonymous says:

Great points on ways to save for college. To extend the military theme further, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarships can be a great way to attend a private university, have a guaranteed decent paying job upon graduation, and get work experiences with some of the best run organizations in the world. I chose the enlisted route (Coast Guard) and used GI benefits to defray the cost of school and had opportunities for summer employment each year. I didn’t think it was too shabby as a college kid to be driving boats all summer for search and rescue.

You do have to get your head around the trade off of serving your country and the possible risks that go with it.

Anonymous says:

Those interested in ROTC should note that an active duty assignment (i.e. full time job) is far from guaranteed. It is competitive to earn an active duty slot; I don’t know the exact numbers, but I think between 50% and 70% of graduates earn active duty. The remainder receive assignments for the reserve or National Guard, in which case they will still have to find a full-time job.

Unless a prospective student were interested in a military career long-term, I would highly recommend enlisting in one of the services for 3 years, then taking advantage of the very generous Post-9/11 GI Bill, which will pay for 4 years of school plus provide a nice housing stipend.

Anonymous says:

I think you chose a great school for your undergraduate degree. And I am not biased at all 🙂

The idea of online education is a great one. As an online instructor for the last 4 years, I do suggest that anyone looking into online classes do some serious vetting of the school, instructor, curriculum, etc. Even if the class is free, you don’t want to feel like you’re wasting your time.

Anonymous says:

I concur, Jana; and add that no class is really free when you factor in the time and effort you put into it. Time is money. A lot of these free classes are pass/fail for no credit, and can’t transfer towards a degree of any kind, leaving you with very little to show for all your hard work.

Maybe it’s fine for those that already have a degree. But those of you still working for one, you have to ask yourself: Why put time into any classes that don’t ultimately add up to a degree?