How to Go to College for Free

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Kristen Kuchar

By Kristen Kuchar

August 16, 2023

Before you stress about the high costs of college, which can put you thousands of dollars in debt, consider options to go to college for free or at a reduced cost. While it is extremely difficult to find the resources to go to college 100% for free, there are ways to get free tuition or to reduce your overall educational costs. We’ve put together ten ways to help you do just that.

One of the best ways to go to college for free if you have enough time to prepare is to save early in a 529 plan. This is a tax-advantaged account that allows for tax-free distributions to pay for tuition or other qualified expenses. See how a 529 plan can work for you.

Here are ten ways that you can either go to college for free or reduce your total educational costs:

1. Qualify for Scholarships 

The first step to limit your total costs is to apply for as many scholarships as you can. Scholarships are free money that you do not have to pay back and it is how hard workers can lower their tuition, or even go to school without having to pay tuition. There are a few things you should be aware of though as you apply for specific scholarships.

While scholarships are generally tax-free when used for tuition and textbooks, when used for housing and other costs, they can be taxable. Watch out for scholarship scams, too. And if you win a scholarship, you may have to appeal to your school that it doesn’t reduce your need-based financial aid.

Working with a financial aid rep at your school is the best practice for making sure you report scholarships the right way so that it doesn’t hurt your other need-based aid.

You can find scholarships by looking down these potential avenues:

Keep in mind a scholarship may be taken away if you don’t meet the specific requirements, such as maintaining a certain grade point average. You should make sure you fully understand what you’re committing to when you agree to take any scholarship money.

You can use our Scholarship Calculator to determine how much you may need to pay in taxes on a scholarship.

2. Apply for Grants

Grants are like scholarships because they are free money you do not need to repay. Grants are usually need-based, while scholarships can be for anyone. The best way to find grants is to submit the FAFSA as quickly as you can after it opens up every October 1st (for the following school year) since grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Note that the 2024-2025 award year’s FAFSA will not open until December 2023.

Some grants may be required to be repaid if you do not meet the grant’s obligations. For example, the TEACH Grant will be retroactively turned into a loan if you don’t satisfy the teaching requirements.

See also: Complete Guide to the FAFSA and Financial Aid

3. Consider Employer Tuition Assistance

There are hundreds of companies that offer some type of tuition assistance to employees. If you’re currently working then your employer might literally pay for your college, or reimburse you for it. A company may have stipulations, such as you need to agree to work for the company for a certain amount of time or attend a specific school or even have a specific major that is an area of need for them.

Amazon, Best Buy, Comcast, Home Depot, Pizza Hut and Starbucks are just a handful of places that offer some type of tuition reimbursement. Some people mistakingly think that either part-time or entry-level roles don’t qualify for this assistance but that’s not true. There might be different rules or total rewards but it could still be a possibility.

There are even companies that offer tuition assistance to the family of an employee, so if your parents work for a company that offers it, you may be able to get free tuition. 

4. Work at the School You Attend

Many colleges offer free or discounted tuition to employees who work at the college. They may even extend that same benefit to the children of employees. 

If you know where you want to attend school then you could get a job there before applying and work there for the minimum amount of time required to get the free education. This could be the best way to go to college for free, but it is limited to where you can get a job and what you can do for the university without having a degree.

5. Consider a Work College 

A work college is an institution that offers free tuition or other types of financial assistance to students in exchange for participating in a work program.

This can be an easy way to get free tuition and then gain some valuable work experience. These schools also tend to prioritize work over grades, which might be less stressful and help you prioritize skills you’ll need after graduation. 

6. Find a College With Free Tuition

There are 18 U.S. colleges that offer free tuition for students. Keep in mind that these colleges come with requirements as they don’t just hand out tuition like candy on Halloween. While tuition may be free, that may not include room and board and supplies so you’ll still likely be on the hook for some related expenses. 

There are several cities that offer free tuition programs, too. These cities are generally looking for you to stay in the city and work for them or a local business after graduation. Remember that any money you take for college likely has a qualification, condition, or post-graduation requirement. 

7. See if You Qualify for a Tuition Waiver

Some colleges offer tuition waivers to need-based students. A tuition waiver basically says that you wouldn’t be able to attend if you had to pay the tuition. Each college that offers this likely has a maximum number that they approve each year so it’s best to apply as quickly as possible when you know you qualify.

Children of college faculty and staff may qualify for a tuition waiver. The best chances for receiving a tuition waiver are to fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can and then o contact your college’s financial aid department to inquire as soon as you do.

8. Crowdfund Your Education

You can consider crowdfunding to see assistance with paying for college. With crowdfunding, you can set up a page on GoFundMe or another platform, and basically ask people to help you pay for college. While this seems far-fetched, some people have shown success with this method. 

You’re more likely to succeed with this method if you have a compelling reason why you need help. Those that grew up in a good financial situation who are getting their parents’ help already probably aren’t as likely to gain interest on these platforms as someone who is truly on their own or who has a story behind why they can’t go to school. 

9. Choose an Apprentice Program Instead

If you don’t want to go to a traditional four-year college, an apprenticeship prepares workers for a specific field. Most offer a paycheck while you learn on the job and you don’t have to be in the classroom for nearly as long, or at all. 

Apprenticeships are traditionally in fields of trade like plumbers, electricians, or construction workers. These are things that you cannot properly learn from sitting in a classroom but must be on-the-job and learning. Any apprenticeship will typically tie you to working with a company for a period of time once you’re qualified to do the work on your own. 

10. Consider an In-Demand Job

Some colleges offer tuition assistance for high-demand roles. For example, the University of Portland covers more than 80% of tuition for nursing students in exchange for a three-year employment contract with a specific hospital.

In-demand jobs and industries typically have programs tied to them that help you go to school without having to worry about paying for it, if you’re willing to work somewhere for at least a few years.

Another good example right now is airline pilots, which have a major shortage. Airlines, especially smaller ones that can’t afford top salaries, are paying off students’ training and education if they commit to working with them. 

How to Go to College for Less 

While you may not qualify for a completely free ride to go to school that includes living expenses, there are some things you can do to limit costs. This includes everything from trying to qualify for a tuition scholarship to living more frugally during school. Here are some of the best tips to cut your education costs:

  • High school students can enroll in AP classes, which could count as college credits.
  • Attend a community college first, but be sure your credit transfer. There are areas where community college is free.
  • Consider attending where your parents went to college if the school offers a legacy benefit. For example, Southern Illinois University offers children of alumni a 20% discount on tuition.
  • Choose an affordable school, such as an in-state public school.
  • Live at home or choose an inexpensive place to live.
  • Become a Resident Assistant or Teaching Assistant, which often comes with free or discounted housing.
  • Stay on track with graduation requirements. Plan a path from enrollment to graduation. And pass your classes!
  • Some colleges offer cheaper rates during the summer. Consider taking classes then, too.
  • Borrow textbooks from the library for free or buy them used.

If you do need to borrow student loans, learn how to borrow responsibly. Remember – you need to pay back every dollar you borrow plus interest. Borrow federal student loans first.

Federal loans often a lower interest rate and come with many benefits, including the ability to make payments based on your income, potential for loan forgiveness, the potential for subsidized loans and options to pause payments if you lose your job.

Once you exhaust federal loans, if you do need to borrow private loans, shop around to find the best lender for you. Keep costs low to borrow as least as possible.

The Bottom Line

While it seems like a dream, going to college for free is an option if you’re willing to put in the work and find the right opportunities for yourself. It may take several avenues such as a tuition scholarship and participating in a work program in order to pay for all of your college-related expenses but it is still possible.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is a college education really free?

A college education isn’t free by any means and there is no such thing as a truly free college education. Even if you qualify for your tuition and living expenses to be paid for by another party, such as your employer, you will still be required to do something in exchange. Some tuition scholarships are truly free but they may not pay for your living expenses. 

What state has free college?

There are 11 states that offer free 4-year college programs and 31 that offer a 2-year program. The 11 states offering a 4-year program are Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Washington, and Wyoming.  

Are there any free colleges in the U.S.?

Yes, some colleges are considered to be tuition-free colleges. They don’t charge tuition to students that get in. However, that doesn’t include books or living expenses costs so the colleges aren’t entirely free. There are a number of other schools that offer significant financial aid amounts to their students as well. 


At, our goal is to help you make smart decisions about saving and paying for education. Some of the products featured in this article are from our partners, but this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

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