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These nine colleges are tuition-free

Key Points
  • With college costs soaring and student loan debt at a record high, a handful of schools have carved out a unique spot by waiving tuition.
  • However, in return for a degree at no cost, the commitment they require is steep.
Webb Institute
Source: Webb Institute

Even as college becomes increasingly unaffordable for many students and their families, it is still possible to graduate owing next to nothing.

"There are so many college-bound students and their families that are nervous about assuming too much debt," said Robert Franek, editor in chief at The Princeton Review.

However, crossing an expensive school off of the list because of the price alone is a mistake, he added. Often, it is possible to bring the out-of-pocket cost significantly down with scholarships and grants — money that never has to be paid back.

And then there are a handful of schools take that one step further by providing enough free money to bring the tuition cost to $0.

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But getting into one of these unique institutions is no small feat. For starters, each school has high academic standards. And in every case, there's a catch: In return for a degree at no cost — and with little overall debt burden — the level of commitment they require, even after graduation, can be steep.

"There is an incredible service these schools are providing but they are not going to be a fit for every college-bound student," Franek said.

For those who do fit the bill, here are the colleges that cost absolutely nothing:

Berea College

Berea College Campus.
L.H. | Flickr CC

This small school in Berea, 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 with those costs. In addition, Berea won't admit students whose parents can afford to send them elsewhere.

College of the Ozarks

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

Dubbed Hard Work U, this is one of the hardest Midwestern schools to get in to, with a 16% 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 Point Lookout, 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, and preference is given to students hailing from the Ozarks region.

Deep Springs College

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

This incredibly small liberal arts college in California's remote High Desert recently went from all-male to coed. But still, there were only a handful of women admitted last year. 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 has a total enrollment of about 30 students and the school's academic demands are intense. There is no partying here and, in addition to their rigorous course load, everyone works on the cattle ranch where it is located. "It is no joke," Franek said.

U.S. Air Force Academy

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

In addition to free tuition, students receive a stipend to cover all other costs at this prestigious academy just north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in El Paso County. In exchange, there are very high standards for applicants and matriculated 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, although many opt to stay in the military for much longer.

U.S. Coast Guard Academy

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

This New London, 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 completing their schooling. About 80% of cadets go to sea after graduation.

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

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

Tuition, room and board, uniforms and books are all covered at this service academy in Kings Point, New York, on Long Island. 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. Further, men outnumber women here by nearly 5 to 1.

U.S. Military Academy – West Point

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

This highly competitive military academy in New York State's Hudson Valley has a 10% acceptance rate. Students must be 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 and leadership experience, many graduates go on to successful careers in politics and business.

The catch? You must be nominated by your Congressional representative to even apply to West Point, and graduates must serve at least five years of active duty and three years in the reserves for a total of eight years after finishing school.

U.S. Naval Academy

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

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? Applicants must be unmarried U.S. citizens between the ages of 17 and 23 and all graduates must serve at least five years as an officer in the Navy or Marine Corps followed by the reserves.

Webb Institute

Webb Institute
Source: Webb Institute

Founded by the shipbuilder William Webb, this little engineering college in Glen Cove, 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 stellar reputation, graduates are highly employable. In fact, there generally is a 100% placement rate after graduation.

The catch? There are only about 100 students total and just one academic major and one degree offered at this institution but as the school says, "if you can design a ship, you can design anything."

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This college is completely tuition-free, but there's a catch