You attend an 'automatic scholarship' school
Students at Macaulay Honors College, part of the City University of New York system, don't stress about the high price of tuition. That's because theirs is free. At Macaulay and a handful of other service academies, work colleges, single-subject schools and conservatories, 100 percent of the student body receive a full merit-based tuition scholarship for all four years. Macaulay students also receive a laptop and $7,500 in "opportunities funds" to pursue research, service experiences, study abroad programs and internships.
"The most important thing is not the free tuition, but the freedom of studying without the burden of debt on your back," says Ann Kirschner, university dean of Macaulay Honors College. The debt burden, she says, "really compromises decisions students make in college, and we are giving them the opportunity to be free of that."
Schools that grant free tuition to all students are rare, but a greater number of institutions provide automatic aid to enrollees with high grades. Such institutions as Indiana University Bloomington, Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., and the University of Kentucky, Lexington all offer automatic awards to high-performing students with stellar GPAs and class ranks. Residency requirements may apply.
Your family financially qualifies
Low-income families will automatically qualify for federal financial aid, but some schools will also step in to fill the remaining gap. At Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, Calif., all undergrads in the liberal arts program whose families earn $60,000 per year or less receive free tuition, a value of $27,214 for the 2012-2013 school year. Families still will have to foot room and board charges.
"The maximum (federal) Pell Grant is right around $5,500 ... that's not enough to meet most tuitions at private universities across the country," says Soka director of enrollment services Andrew Woolsey.
Soka's not alone. Columbia University in New York and Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, both offer 100 percent free tuition for families with adjusted gross incomes of less than $60,000. Harvard University offers free rides to those with family incomes of $65,000 or less. Among the 1,171 institutions that provide information to U.S. News and World Report for their annual college rankings issue, the magazine reports that 62 meet 100 percent of enrollees' financial needs. To find out a school's policy on meeting need, call the institution's financial aid office.
You have native roots
Since 2010, approximately 2,400 students in Michigan have attended college for free through the state's Native American tuition waiver program, says Melissa Claramunt, American Indian and civil rights specialist for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Available to state residents who are at least one-quarter Native American and enrolled in a federally recognized tribe, the waiver absolves eligible students from paying tuition at any two- or four-year public in-state institution.
Claramunt adds that a handful of states offer tuition waiver programs for Native American students, but that even more individual institutions may offer waivers or special financial aid for indigenous students including Eskimo and Aleut as well as those hailing from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.
"It is worth (a student's) while to look into individual tuition waivers," she says. "It always would behoove a student to check into programs for certain populations or certain types of student."
Students from these backgrounds may also find additional financial help through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the American Indian College Fund.
You survived hardship
Certain states also offer tuition waivers for students who have overcome significant adversity. In Michigan, for example, residents who have had Medicaid coverage for at least two years may be eligible for full tuition and fees at an in-state public two-year institution or up to $2,000 in assistance at in-state public four-year schools. To qualify, students must enroll no longer than four years after graduating high school.
A few states, including Minnesota, grant tuition waivers for students who have survived a substantial natural disaster, though how many of these waivers are available and who gets them are up to the individual institution. Other states, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, provide free tuition at public schools to state resident spouses and children of Sept. 11 victims. Private memorial scholarships for dependents of Sept. 11 victims abound, and the federal government offers immediate federal loan forgiveness for parents and spouses of those lost.
Obstacles that resulted in unusually high medical bills or other costs aren't reported in the federal aid methodology. To ensure that financial aid officers are aware of these costs, eligible students should be prepared to file a professional judgment form and provide documentation.
You have the right job
Most schools offer free tuition to their full-time employees, but many extend the offer to dependents and part-timers as well. According to Greg Hand, director of public relations for the University of Cincinnati, these programs frequently come with limitations.
"It's difficult to be a full-time employee and a full-time student," he says. "Beyond six credit hours, a (University of Cincinnati) employee needs some sort of special permission to take a course load greater than that."
Hand adds that his school's tuition remission program doesn't cover fees, and that remission for graduate coursework may be considered taxable income.
A career in public service may open doors at some institutions. For example, the University of Washington in Seattle and Florida State University in Tallahassee extend tuition waivers to some state employees. A few schools, including Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J., offer limited waivers to volunteer firefighters, rescue squad workers, first aid professionals and their spouses and dependents.