How to Go to College for Free

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Kristen Kuchar

By Kristen Kuchar

May 14, 2020

Before you stress about the high costs of college, consider options to go to college for free or at a reduced cost. While it may not completely be free, there are options to lower the price tag for college and to reduce student loan debt. Here’s how to lower your costs of college or potentially even go to college for free:


Apply for as many scholarships as you can. Scholarships are free money that you do not have to pay back.

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 with your school that it doesn’t reduce your need-based financial aid.

Find scholarships by:

  • Searching the U.S. Department of Labor’s free search tool and other free scholarship search sites
  • Sallie Mae’s free scholarship search
  • Asking your high school counselor
  • Contacting the financial aid office at your college
  • Professional organizations, especially related to your major
  • Your employer
  • Your parent’s employer
  • Community organizations
  • Local businesses

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.

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


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 before the deadline, since grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

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

Employer Tuition Assistance

There are hundreds of companies that offer some type of tuition assistance to employees. Your employer can 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. 

Amazon, Best Buy, Comcast, Home Depot, Pizza Hut and Starbucks are just a handful of places that offer some type of tuition reimbursement. 

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. 

College Employment

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. 

Work Colleges 

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. 

Colleges with Free Tuition

There are 18 U.S. colleges that offer free tuition for students. Keep in mind that these colleges come with requirements. While tuition may be free, that may not include room and board and supplies.

There are several cities that offer free tuition programs, too. 


Some colleges offer tuition waivers to need-based students. Children of college faculty and staff may qualify for a tuition waiver.

The best chances for receiving a tuition waiver is to fill out the FAFSA and to contact your college’s financial aid department to inquire. 


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. 

Apprentice Programs 

If you don’t want to go to a traditional four-year college, an apprenticeship prepares worker for a specific field. Most offer a paycheck while you learn on the job.

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.

How to Go to College for Less 

  • 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 are often a lower interest rate and come with many benefits, including the ability to make payments based on your income, potential for loan forgiveness, 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.

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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