At this college, every student gets a full-tuition scholarship and a job

  • Webb Institute is one of only nine colleges in the country that is completely tuition free.
  • Students there must commit to an intense focus on naval architecture and marine engineering and cover other expenses besides tuition.

Spread over 26 acres on Long Island’s North Shore, with a private beach, is a tiny but top-ranked college that offers each and every one of its students a full-tuition scholarship for all four years.

Of course, there’s a catch.

At Webb Institute — one of only nine colleges in the country that is completely tuition free — there is just one academic option: a double major in naval architecture and marine engineering.

“When you are applying to Webb, you have to love boats,” said Lauren Carballo, the admissions director.

Thanks to a hefty endowment and devoted alumni, Webb has been able to maintain free tuition even as such promises become increasingly rare. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, for example, dialed back its commitment that education be “as free as air and water” and began offering students only half-tuition scholarships in 2014.

“We’re the only engineering school in the country that offers no tuition,” Carballo said. Still, “a lot of people don’t know we exist.”

Like winning the lottery

College applicants, however, are catching on. The number of applications is on the rise although the enrollment size remains less than 30 students per class. (Webb currently has a 27 percent acceptance rate.)

“For the right student, it’s like winning the lottery,” said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review's editor-in-chief and author of "Colleges That Pay You Back." Every graduate leaves school with a job in the field and an average starting salary of over $71,000, according to the school (higher than both Harvard and Yale).

Kevin Prichard, 23, graduated in June and accepted an offer at Austal, a ship building company in San Diego, working as a naval architect. He said his experience job hunting was “very easy” although his course load over four years was not. “It is a lot of work and the school pushes you.”

Webb Institute’s Class of 2018 posing for a group photo before the 122nd Commencement Ceremony.
Source: Jonathan Wang, Webb Institute student, Class of 2020 
Webb Institute’s Class of 2018 posing for a group photo before the 122nd Commencement Ceremony.

The college founded by the shipbuilder William Webb in 1889 is not for every engineering-minded high school student.

Although the one-two punch of skyrocketing tuition costs and sluggish wage growth has caused families to pay more attention to such pre-professional programs, particularly in STEM fields, “make sure you love the discipline,” cautioned Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm. “It’s going to be very focused.”

There's more to consider beyond price

In addition, there are still room and board and other expenses to contend with, he added. “When most people hear full tuition they think there’s nothing to pay but there is a non-tuition part which can be very expensive.”

To cover those costs at Webb, Prichard took out federal loans and graduated with a student debt tab of about $30,000, he said. (Across the country, seven in 10 seniors graduate with debt, owing about $29,650 per borrower, according to the most recent data from the Institute for College Access & Success.)

“Somebody could go to community college for a lot less than the room and board at many colleges,” Greenberg added.

Greenberg recommends visiting comparable schools before making a decision based on price alone, to make sure that a specific school is the right fit.

“If someone gets in to a school like Webb and they’re not particularly interested in it, that’s not going to work out well down the road.”

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