College Game Plan

These colleges are free—if you get in

What if tuition was $0?

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With college costs soaring and nearly $1.3 trillion in student loans outstanding, a handful of schools have carved out a unique spot in academia — they charge no tuition at all.

Although the costs of tuition is $0, getting in is no small feat. Each school looks for determined young scholars eager to challenge themselves throughout their college career.

"Many of these free schools are pretty specific, and the students that attend are very driven and know what they want to do," said David Soto, co-author of the Princeton Review book "Colleges That Pay You Back."

In return for a college degree at no cost — and with no debt burden — the commitment they require, even after graduation, is steep.

Click ahead for nine colleges that have free tuition.

– By CNBC's Jessica Dickler
Posted 13 April 2016

Berea College

Source: Berea College

This small school in Kentucky has a singular mission: to attract underprivileged students committed to working hard. Only those who have financial need are admitted, and every student is awarded a four-year scholarship and a laptop. Tuition costs: $0.

The catch? There is no slacking off — classroom attendance is mandatory and every student must work on campus for a set number of hours every week. The scholarships also don't cover room and board or other expenses, although additional financial aid is available to help cover those costs.

College of the Ozarks

Source: College of the Ozarks

Dubbed Hard Work U, this is one of the hardest Midwestern schools to get in to, with only an 8 percent acceptance rate. Students don't pay a penny for tuition. Scholarships and grants completely cover the cost of tuition at this Christian school in rural Missouri.

The catch? Every student is required to work 15 hours a week plus two 40-hour work weeks as part of the school's Work Education Program. Although there is no tuition burden, underclassmen must still pick up the tab for room and board and other expenses.

Deep Springs College

Source: Deep Springs College

This incredibly small all-male liberal arts college is in California's remote High Desert. Although obtaining a spot is highly competitive, every student is awarded a scholarship that covers tuition and room and board. Since Deep Springs is a two-year school, many graduates transfer to an elite Ivy league school after completion.

The catch? The college admits only 22-25 men a year, on average, and the school's academic demands are intense. This is a "very nontraditional college experience, and students must forgo a lot of the comforts of a typical college dorm," said Soto.

U.S. Air Force Academy

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In addition to free tuition, students receive a stipend to cover all other costs at this prestigious military academy in Colorado. In exchange, there are very high standards for applicants and students straight through to graduation. After four years, graduates are commissioned as second lieutenants in the Air Force.

The catch? Each cadet will owe at least five years of service as an active duty officer after graduation, although many opt to stay in the military for much longer.

U.S. Coast Guard Academy

Source: U.S. Coast Guard Academy

This Connecticut-based academy is also very selective and rigorous. Many students study engineering and environment science during the highly structured four-year program. Aside from purchasing uniforms, all students receive scholarships to cover tuition and room and board.

The catch? Students must commit to five years of service after graduation. About 80 percent of cadets go to sea after graduation.

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

Source: U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

Tuition, room and board, uniforms and books are all covered at this service academy in New York. It's known for having the hardest academic standards but the widest variety of career options of all the service academies. After graduation, cadets can enter any branch of the armed forces as an officer.

The catch? Every graduate must maintain their merchant marine officer's license for six years and there is a service obligation, which varies depending on what type of job they choose.

U.S. Military Academy – West Point

Source: U.S. Military Academy

This highly competitive military academy has a 9 percent acceptance rate. Students are focused and work hard without exception. In return for a stellar education and training, West Point is fully funded. Students receive free tuition in addition to a stipend of about $10,000 a year. After their years of service, many graduates go on to successful careers in politics and business, Soto said.

The catch? Graduates must serve at least five years of active duty and three years in the reserves.

U.S. Naval Academy

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The Navy picks up the tab for tuition and room and board for all students at the Yard in Annapolis, Maryland. Midshipmen are highly motivated and disciplined, and many go on to have prominent careers within and outside the military.

The catch? All graduates must serve at least five years as an officer followed by the reserves.

Webb Institute

Webb Institute
Source: Webb Institute

Founded by the shipbuilder William Webb, this little engineering college in New York is tailor made for those who want to pursue a very specific career. Every student receives a full scholarship to cover tuition to study naval architecture and marine engineering. Because of the school's reputation, graduates are highly employable. In fact, there generally is a 100 percent placement rate after graduation.

The catch? There is only one academic major and one degree offered at this institution and "students eat, sleep, study ship design," Soto said.

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