Personal Finance

8 Ways You Can Go to College for Free

Christina Couch, Bankrate
Jamie Grill | Iconica | Getty Images

News about college tuition is rarely good.

As schools continue to raise prices, students are taking on an increasing amount of educational debt. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency created to help consumers understand financial products and services, student loan debt currently tops $1 trillion.

Research from the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to higher education, finds that 1 in 10 students graduate with $40,000 or more in undergraduate debt.

Even if you're not a straight-A student, an all-star athlete or inclined to apply for some of the world's strangest scholarships, you can still find programs that will pay the college tab for you. Read on to learn about eight reasons someone else might pay your tuition.

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.

You have no job

Unmarried independent students with no income will most likely qualify for the maximum $5,550 in Pell Grant funds for the 2012-2013 school year and may qualify for up to an additional $4,000 Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant from the federal government.

On top of the need-based aid their school offers, the unemployed may also find help through state retraining programs. New Jersey, for instance, offers a full tuition waiver at in-state public schools for workers who have been out of the job for at least three years. Several states and individual two- and four-year schools offer waivers and tuition support for dislocated workers and victims of mass layoffs.

Help on the state and college levels is also available for permanently disabled students who can't find work. State vocational rehabilitation departments often offer specialized scholarships and tuition reduction opportunities, and maintains an ongoing list of awards offered through various private and nonprofit organizations. Tuition waivers for public institutions are available in states including Maryland and Minnesota, though restrictions may apply. Certain individual institutions may offer them as well.

You were adopted or were a foster child

Financial aid at the state and institutional levels is abundant for young adults coming from adoption or foster care backgrounds as well as those who are or have been wards of the state. Many states and individual institutions offer tuition waivers at in-state public schools for these students while private organizations and nonprofits, including the Foster Care to Success and the National Foster Parent Association, offer outside aid.

Students who have been in the foster care system, or who have become orphaned or wards of the state at any point since turning 13, may be eligible for heftier federal financial aid. These students as well as legally emancipated minors are considered independent students by the Department of Education. That means their federal aid package will be based on their income and assets, not the income and assets of their parents or guardians, which will let them garner more federal aid.

You're heading back

Ready to go back to school? The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., will give you a taste for free. The school offers a one-time tuition waiver good for four free credits for new students taking courses through the school's Evening & Weekend Studies program.

"(The waiver) is basically designed for adult students returning to school," says Kelly Norman, an Evergreen admissions counselor. "A lot of times people will take some classes in our evening and weekend catalogue to see if they're a good fit for our institution or to see if they can go back to school. Sometimes getting back in the groove takes time."

Evergreen and many other schools across the country also offer tuition waivers for senior citizens, though the age eligibility requirements can range from 60 to 65. Other institutions such as James Madison University and the City University of New York's Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies program offer college credit for life experience. Of course grants and scholarships for older, nontraditional students are available through both private organizations and individual colleges.