How to go to college for free—or close to it

How to go to college for free—or close to it

There’s hope for families worried about the rapidly escalating rise in college costs (and subsequent student debt). Here are the money-saving options to talk through with your kid before you take the traditional four-year plunge, in order from big to modest savings—along with the drawbacks of each one. (There’s always a catch, isn’t there?)

State-sponsored free tuition

The benefit: While several states including Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota have free community college programs, the New York Excelsior Scholarship is the nation’s first to offer full scholarships for tuition at two- and four-year publicly funded schools, namely the dozens of campuses that make up State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY).

The catch: For now, only New Yorkers have such a free-college program, though legislatures in California and other states are developing similar ones. And the Excelsior Scholarship has some strict rules. To be eligible in 2019, a family’s income is capped at $125,000. As a “last dollar” program, Excelsior requires you to apply for Federal Pell grants or state aid first before being considered for the scholarship, which covers tuition only—not living expenses, books, or fees. Excelsior graduates must live and work in New York for the same number of years they got funding.

Full-need aid packages

The benefit: If you look at the sticker price only, you might shy away from a certain school. But after you factor in a school’s financial aid package, it can become affordable. This is particularly true of schools that are committed to meeting 100% of a family’s demonstrated need without student loans. U.S. News & World Report lists 66 schools that said they did in 2016–17. At a handful of colleges, parents with a combined income under $65,000 are expected to contribute nothing. 

The catch: These tend to be extremely selective private schools (the entire Ivy League, for example), so you’ve got to be very strong applicant. Always check your financial aid package carefully. Some schools that claim to be “full-need” may in fact be lumping loans together with aid that doesn’t have to be repaid.

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Accelerated study

The benefit: Some schools allow students a certain number of credits at no extra charge. By maxing out the course load, your kid can potentially graduate early, saving on tuition and living costs. Similarly, credits earned via high school Advanced Placement courses give them a head start toward reaching the minimum credits required to graduate from college.

The catch: It’s stressful. Your kid is going to be working very hard, leaving less time for friends, parties, and debating philosophy in the dining hall.

Service academies

The benefit: The five service academies—the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy—charge nothing for tuition, room and board. They even pay students while they’re attending.

The catch: You face an active-duty service requirement of five years after you graduate. The application process for some academies is incredibly arduous, beginning in 11th grade and requiring an individual Congressional nomination and a battery of tests for physical and mental fitness. Even if you manage to apply, acceptance rates at these elite institutions are low, ranging from 9% to 18%.

Tuition-free private school

The benefit: Some schools simply don’t charge students any money to attend. New York’s Cooper Union is a famous example, although its tuition-free policy is on hiatus until 2028. College of the Ozarks and Antioch College are two others.

The catch: The schools may be tuition-free, but they expect something in return. Many of them assign students part-time work each semester and require full-time work during breaks as well. And many have a religious affiliation with which you’d have to be comfortable. 

Community college

The benefit: Two years at an affordable local community college can be a stepping-stone to a junior-year transfer to a four-year university. In the end, you’ll earn your bachelor’s degree at a fraction of the cost. Many community colleges offer “transfer pathways” to a larger four-year public school within the state.

The catch: Life happens. There’s no certainty you’ll get into the four-year school of your choice, or that you’ll even want to finish up your degree there. You also need to think ahead: If your community-college credits aren’t accepted at the four-year college, you won’t be able to begin your time there as a junior. So check with the admissions office of each school you’re considering as a transfer destination.

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In-state public school

The benefit: Most people know that compared with out-of-state prices, choosing the public school within your home state can save money—an average of $12,000. But you may be surprised to learn that the definition of “in-state” can be flexible: Some schools offer in-state rates to children of alumni who no longer live in-state, to students from neighboring states, and to out-of-state applicants considered academically exceptional.

The catch: Acceptance rates are lower for in-state applicants at some schools than they are for out-of-staters. The reason: Nonresident students pay significantly higher tuition, which schools can use to compensate for a trimmed state budget.

Professional school

The benefit: You can get the jump on certain professional careers that don’t require a graduate degree—and thus save the money required for an advanced degree—by attending a school that specializes in preparing you specifically for that career. So, if you go to a fashion, agriculture, business, art, nursing, or culinary school, you could emerge from school as a can’t-miss candidate for a job as a clothing designer, farmer, financial analyst, graphic illustrator, registered nurse, or chef.

The catch: It may be premature for a high school senior to decide on a career. While most professional undergrad schools require at least one general education course, you won’t get broad exposure to the skills associated with a liberal arts program and, if you pile up a student debt with this very narrow focus and then change your mind, you’re in trouble. For this last reason in particular, stick with public or private nonprofit schools—and avoid for-profit institutions.

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