College Game Plan

Nine colleges that cost practically nothing to attend

Key Points
  • While it's no small feat to get in, graduating debt-free is a big draw.
  • Some schools require you to work.
  • You may be responsible for room and board.

With costs soaring and $1.4 trillion in outstanding student debt, some colleges have carved out a unique spot in academia. For starters, tuition is $0.

Getting in, though, is no small feat.

Each school is geared to determined young scholars eager to challenge themselves throughout their academic years. In return for a degree at no tuition cost — and with little or no debt burden — the commitment they require, even after graduation, is steep.

"These are particular kinds of schools that are not for every student," said Robert Franek, editor -in-chief at The Princeton Review. "For those students that fit into this cohort, it will be such a great coup."

Feeling up to the task? Then here are nine institutions that don't charge for tuition:

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? No slacking off is allowed — 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 with those costs.

Berea College Campus.
L.H. | Flickr CC

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 elite schools after completion.

The catch? The college admits only 22 to 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 David Soto, co-author of the Princeton Review book "Colleges That Pay You Back."


Deep Springs College students vote on issues of governance during student meeting, the meeting which decide everything from when to harvest to whom the college should hire to teach often last until late into the evening.
Spencer Weiner | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

College of the Ozarks

Dubbed Hard Work U, this is one of the most difficult Midwestern schools to get in to, with 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 weeks as part of the school's work education program. Although there is no tuition, underclassmen must still pick up the tab for room and board and other expenses.

College of the Ozarks-Branson Missouri.
Jerry and Pat Donaho | Flickr CC

U.S. Air Force Academy

In addition to free tuition, students receive a stipend to cover all other costs at this prestigious academy in Colorado. 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 serve at least five years as an active duty officer after graduation, although many opt to stay in the military for much longer.

Cadets toss their hats in celebration after becoming newly commissioned first lieutenants marking the 45th graduating class at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Getty Images

U.S. Coast Guard Academy

This Connecticut-based service academy is also quite selective and rigorous. Many students study engineering and environmental 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 completing their schooling. About 80 percent of cadets go to sea after graduation.

While docked in Portsmouth, N.H., the USCGC Eagle received Coast Guard Academy cadets.
Coast Guard News | Flickr CC

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.

Merchant marines walk to class at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY, on August 01, 2016.
Yana Paskova | For The Washington Post | Getty Images

U.S. Military Academy – West Point

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 military 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.

New cadets stand in formation during the Oath of Allegiance ceremony during Reception Day at the United States Military Academy at West Point, June 27, 2016 in West Point, New York.
Getty Images

U.S. Naval Academy

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.

Mahan Hall displays banners for the War of 1812 exhibit at the United States Naval Academy in Annaplois.
Loop Images | UIG | Getty Images

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's generally a 100 percent placement rate after graduation.

The catch? Webb offers only one academic major and one degree, and "students eat, sleep, study ship design," said Soto.

Webb Institute
Source: Webb Institute