Getting a college tuition waiver isn’t easy, but it is doable – especially if you can make the case of a family income shortage.

Let’s face it – the need for tuition income waivers and potential student loan debt merges seamlessly against the data on U.S household income.

Data from SavingforCollege.com pegs total current U.S. student loan debt at over $1 trillion, with the per borrower loan debt amount standing at $29,900 for the class of 2019.

Meanwhile, the average U.S. household income was $63,179 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census (According to the U.S. Census Household, income includes bonuses, Social Security, public assistance payments and interest and dividends from investment, among other sources.)

On that average household income, it would be a struggle to cover the college tuition for one or two teenagers on that amount of annual income.

That’s especially the case as annual college costs have risen by 63% since 2012, according to U.S. News.

Enter the Tuition Waiver 

A college tuition waiver can prove the be the great financial equalizer for U.S. families struggling to make ends meet.

A tuition waiver enables a college student who may not otherwise be able to afford to attend college, under either a partial or full waiver.

Tuition waivers (which usually cover tuition costs, but not room and board) can be granted by participating colleges and universities for myriad reasons, including:

  • Family income – While you can apply for and receive student financial aid via the U.S. government’s FAFSA form, the aid you receive may not be enough to cover college costs. That’s where tuition waivers can save the day. A growing number of colleges, including Brown University, Duke University, Harvard, and Rice University, among others, offers partial or total tuition waivers for needs-based students.
  • For military and ex-military students – While not exactly qualifying as GI benefits, a growing number of colleges offer tuition aid for military veterans. Wisconsin, Illinois and Texas, among other states, offer tuition waiver programs for U.S. veterans.
  • For minority students – There are many programs to help minority students attend college at a reduced rate – or for no tuition cost at all.
  • For out of state and international students – Many schools, looking to provide some more diversity on campus, offer tuition waivers specifically for out-of-state and out-of-country students.
  • For students with disabilities – Students who face significant disability issues may qualify for tuition waivers in select states and for many colleges and universities. Maryland is one state that offers direct tuition waiver assistance for the disable, but it’s worth noting that most states elect to use scholarships and grants – and not tuition waivers – to help disabled students pay for college.
  • For foster children and adopted children. Most U.S. states offer some form of tuition free public colleges, with Arizona, Delaware, Alaska, Florida, and Massachusetts among them.

Tuition Waivers and Family Income

Far and away the largest chunk of tuition waiver activity is for families that simply can’t afford to send their children to college.

Even so, not every college advertises tuition waivers for families in financial need, so job one is asking any college or university you apply to if it offers tuition waivers for students in households struggling financially.

Check on the school’s web site to see if the college has a tuition waiver program. If that doesn’t help, contact the school’s bursar’s office directly and ask if it offers tuition waivers based on financial need. Be as specific as possible and, if the college does offer tuition support, be prepared to offer any financial documents (i.e. tax and banking records) that demonstrate that financial need. 

Note that some colleges may offer tuition waivers based on financial need automatically, after a review of an applicant’s FAFSA. For example, Harvard University will automatically waive tuition costs for students in households with less than $65,000 in annual income. Columbia University and Texas A&M will do the same for households below $60,000 in annual income.

In other instances you have to push the issue and ask the school’s financial decision-makers directly. A candid conversation with a college’s bursars office or financial aid should give you the information you need.

From there it’s just a matter of filling out the application provided by a school’s financial aid office.

Once you are approved for a tuition waiver based on financial need, ask about any tax ramifications attached to tuition waivers. Most states don’t tax tuition aid in the form of waivers but some, like Minnesota, will tax a portion of the value of your tuition waiver amount.

Again check with your school’s financial office for clarification.

The Takeaway on Tuition Waivers 

Most college and universities don’t offer tuition waiver programs, so you need to know that going into any financial need scenario.

Of the 1,171 higher education schools included in the latest U.S. News & World Report survey, only 62 offered 100% tuition waiver programs.

That’s why it’s important to plan ahead, get informed, and be ready with the proper paperwork to leverage any available tuition waiver programs at your school of choice – and be ready to move on to another college or university if you don’t get the tuition aid you need.