Tuition Free Colleges Exist, But Are They Worth It?

Why should tuition-free colleges be on your radar? As of 2021, Americans owed more in student loans than they did in credit card debt — $739 billion more, to be exact. It’s easy to see how the cost of a college degree has become so daunting.

While financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships is available, it’s often not enough to cover study at a college or university. This is where tuition-free colleges could help ease the financial burden.

There are, however, both pros and cons to attending one of these specialized tuition-free colleges. Let’s answer the following questions to see whether they could be the right option for you:

What is a tuition-free college?

Tuition-free colleges are programs that do not charge students for courses, making the pursuit of continuing education more affordable. Schools with free tuition may carry certain stipulations in order to qualify, and are often funded at the local or state level.

About 20 states in the U.S. offer programs that could pay your college tuition for you. The concept has become so popular, even some Ivy League schools might let you attend for no tuition.

There are both state and city programs as well as options offered by individual colleges. For state or city programs, in order to qualify, most require that you are a resident of that state or city. With individual college programs, some do not require that you live in a certain area, however, they do typically require you demonstrate financial need as well as academic achievement. Many individual programs also require that students participate in work programs for a certain number of hours every week.

Tuition-free programs do not necessarily mean a school is completely free of charge. Typically, expenses such as room and board, certain fees and books are not covered by these programs.

Tuition-free colleges in the U.S.

These are just a handful of colleges that offer free tuition, usually in tandem with a work program:

Alice Lloyd College, Pippa Passes, Ky.

Work study is usually optional at most schools. But at this small, four-year private college full-time students work a minimum of 10 hours per week (or 160 hours per semester) either on campus or off campus in exchange for zero tuition.

The school’s founder, Alice Spencer Geddes Lloyd, served as publisher and editor of “The Cambridge Press,” the first newspaper in the U.S. staffed by all women. Lloyd wanted to ensure that the school was open to everyone, no matter their financial situation, and established a mandatory work program so all students could earn their tuition.

Antioch College, Ohio

To keep the cost of college affordable, Antioch College offers full-tuition scholarships to any students that also qualify for the Pell Grant. During the 2017-2018 school year alone, the college offered $4.08 million in financial aid to students in the form of scholarships or grants.

Through the program Antioch College Works, all students are also guaranteed a job either on-campus or off-campus.

Barclay College, Haviland, Kan.

Living on campus has its benefits at Barclay College, a private Christian college. Resident students can pursue their degrees free of tuition.

Barclay College automatically offers a full-tuition scholarship worth $17,000 for all resident students to help underclassmen avoid going into debt.

However, students are still responsible for their own room and board, estimated at $10,440 per year.

Berea College, Berea, Ky.

The people at Berea College like to say it’s “the best education money can’t buy” as every student at the college is offered the school’s No-Tuition Promise scholarship.

Most Berea students receive about $176,000 in tuition aid across their four year-career at the Kentucky college. To pay for expenses such as books or room and board, students can also take jobs around the campus, working a minimum of 10 hours a week.

Blackburn College, Carlinville, Ill.

If you’re a student who graduated from a high school in Macoupin County in Illinois, you may be eligible for free tuition through Blackburn College’s Macoupin Promise. Students must demonstrate need (household income can be no more than $60,000), be full time and participate in the school’s work program.

City College of San Francisco, San Francisco

City College of San Francisco, a community college, has a partnership with the city of San Francisco to ensure at least some of its students have access to free tuition.

If you live in San Francisco, the college will cover all tuition expenses through its Free City program. If you’re a California resident, City College of San Francisco also offers the California College Promise Grant (CCPG) — enrollment fees and tuition costs for California residents attending community college in the state.

As a community college, City College of San Francisco only offers two-year associate degrees. If you wish to eventually obtain a four-year degree, students have the option to transfer to a participating University of California or California State Universities through a Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) program.

Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia

While admission is limited at Curtis Institute of Music, no student is charged tuition at the school. Scholarships for undergraduates are estimated to be worth about $44,898 and $55,748 for graduate students.

While students at Curtis Institute can avoid tuition costs, you’ll still be required to pay fees while assistance with room and board is need-based. While attending Curtis Institute, your studies will be focused on music.

At this school, you can obtain your diploma, post-baccalaureate diploma, bachelor’s, master’s, and professional studies certificate.

Deep Springs College, Deep Springs, Calif.

At Deep Springs College, there are no majors. Instead, students at this two-year college typically take two to three classes a semester and put in 20 hours of work a week at the school’s farm and ranch. In exchange for the students’ labor, each student is provided a full scholarship to Deep Springs which covers both tuition and room and board.

Deep Springs College is competitive to get into — the school only admits 12 to 15 students a year. Students may also participate in a student body governance where they work with the college staff and faculty to make decisions on how to best run the operations at the school.

Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colo.

If you are a member of a Native American tribe or Alaska Native village, you may be eligible for free tuition at Fort Lewis College through the school’s Native American Tuition Waiver program. Keep in mind, however, that this waiver does not cover room and board, fees or books.

About 41% of Fort Lewis’s student body is made up of Native American or Alaska Native students, coming from about 177 Indigenous nations, tribes, and villages.

The Apprentice School, Newport News, Va.

The Apprentice School is more like a job than a college. Students, or apprentices as the school refers to them, must complete 1,000 in the school’s Trade Related Education Curriculum and World Class Shipbuilder Curriculum. Apprentices can choose between four-, five- and eight-year apprenticeships.

At The Apprentice School, students start off by making $18.87 at the start of their first term. By the end of the program, students earn a wage of $29.73. Aside from being paid for their education, apprentices also receive benefits that they would find at a job outside of school including a 401(k) savings plan, health insurance and paid time off.

United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.

An education at the United States Air Force Academy is worth well over $400,000, but it comes completely tuition free for all students. Like other U.S. military academies, once you graduate, you’ll have to serve in the military once you graduate. For the Air Force Academy, that means students will have to serve as officers in the Air and Space Forces.

United States Coast Guard Academy, New London, Conn.

At the United States Coast Guard Academy, your tuition as well as your room and board is valued at $280,000, but you won’t have to pay a dime for it. On top of free tuition, students, or cadets, also receive a monthly salary. Once you graduate from the Coast Guard academy, you’ll be required to serve for five years as a Coast Guard officer.

United States Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, N.Y.

Students, or midshipmen as they’re referred to, are not charged for tuition, textbooks or room and board at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. However, they are responsible for fees and other school-related supplies. Unlike other military academies, students at this school do not receive monthly stipends or salaries.

United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.

One of the most prestigious military schools in the country, at the United States Military Academy, tuition comes completely free of charge. Aside from tuition, students at West Point don’t have to worry about room and board expenses and will receive medical and dental insurance as well as a monthly stipend.

With a four-year education, students will be able to get their bachelor of science degree in a variety of fields. Students also must be enrolled with a sport each semester.

United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.

Not only can students at the United States Naval Academy avoid paying tuition and room and board, but all medical and dental care costs are covered as well. Students also receive $1,087.80 per month to cover any extra expenses and fees as well as $100 in cash each month.

Applicants must be U.S. citizens, between the ages of 17 and 23, not married or pregnant, and must not have any dependents. Once you graduate from the Naval Academy, you will be required to serve five years of active duty.

University of the People, Online

A school that takes place completely online, University of the People is tuition free and does not charge students for expenses like books. While the school does charge student fees, there are also scholarships available if you can’t afford them.

At University of the People, students can get their associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees; however, the college only offers a handful of programs.

Webb Institute, Glen Cove, N.Y.

This marine engineering school off of Long Island, New York offers a full tuition scholarship to all enrolled full-time students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

This tuition scholarship is valued at $53,470 for the 2021-2022 academic year. However, undergraduates may still need to apply for some student loans to pay for room and board.

There is one catch, though. The school only offers one course of study: dual Bachelor of Science degrees in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.

Warren Wilson College, Asheville, N.C.

As of 2018, any undergraduate that demonstrates financial need and is a North Carolina resident is eligible to attend Warren Wilson College without worrying about tuition. This is granted through the state’s North Carolina Free Tuition Plan.

These students must also live on campus and participate in a work program. During a student’s first year, you’ll need to participate at least eight hours a week. Through this program, students can earn up to $2,176 a year toward tuition.

Why should college tuition be free?

Colleges that allow students to bypass hefty tuition costs offer both the community and future workforce a variety of benefits. Here’s a rundown why free college tuition could help society more broadly:

To reduce student loan debt

In the U.S., Americans share a collective debt of $1.71 trillion in student loans. In some cases, the number or size of loans a student must take on in order to get their degree can lead them to decades-worth of accumulated debt. Below are student loan debt statistics by loan program:

Direct Loans $1.32 trillion 35.9 million borrowers
FFEL Loans $245.9 billion 11.0 million borrowers
Perkins Loans $5.2 billion 1.7 million borrowers
Total (All Federal) $1.57 trillion 42.9 million borrowers

By helping students avoid paying steep tuition costs, these types of programs can help students avoid, if not reduce, at least some of the student loan debt they may have to take on. The money you save can be used towards future life expenses, such as a home down payment or interest-bearing savings fund.

“There’s a clear message that at least some of the costs are covered, and tuition is one of those costs,” says Laura Perna, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) at the University of Pennsylvania. “Having mechanisms that make it easier for folks to understand that at least some of these costs are covered could help encourage more people to think about going to college.”

Keep in mind that you may still need to borrow student loans to cover other expenses that go into your cost of attendance.

To provide more access to higher education

Many students can’t afford to attend a popular public or private university, even with financial aid or scholarships. These types of students can benefit from a college that charges no tuition.

“I think the main benefit of tuition-free colleges is that it will present affordable college opportunities,” says Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). “This does not mean students won’t have expenses. Non-tuition expenses are formidable, but it removes at least one barrier to college access. That can help students move on to higher education and give them a sense that affordable college opportunities are out there.”

To help build the workforce

Since some tuition-free colleges mandate working in exchange for tuition, attending one may help develop a student’s sense of responsibility, leadership and professionalism.

Many students who work during college also find they are better prepared for entering the workforce after graduating — compared to attending a public school where part-time work is optional.

And with the burden of student loans mostly off the mind of a student borrower, you can focus more on your academic and job performance, as well as cultivate real-world skills without encumbering debt.

Some tuition-free college programs, like New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, also help to build a stronger and more educated workforce in particular areas. With The Excelsior Scholarship, recipients must live in New York for the length of time they were enrolled in the program.

“There’s an interest not only in improving educational attainment, but also trying to improve the economic vitality of a community,” says Perna. “I think that kind of approach where you’re recognizing what’s happening in a particular community around college opportunity, as well as the connections between college and the economy, is promising.”

When is tuition-free college not such a good idea?

Attending a college with free tuition may offer financial relief for some, but for others, it might not be the best option for them.

If you have a narrow academic focus

Some tuition-free colleges allow you to take courses for free, but your choice of college majors may be limited. For example, at the Webb Institute in Glen Cove, N.Y., the college provides scholarships to all students to cover tuition costs. However, students can only take one course of study: dual Bachelor of Science degrees in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.

If you’re unsure of what you’d like to get your degree in or want to have the option to change it just in case, it may not be worth majoring in a field you dislike or are unsure of just to save on tuition.

“Students really need to shop around and look at the program that is the best fit for their academic and career goals,” says Harnisch. “There are other programs that may not be tuition-free, but offer scholarships and financial aid that might be a better deal. It’s important to look beyond just a tuition-free college and look at your options and financial aid. Students should really look for the program that works for them.”

If you can’t meet strict eligibility requirements

Some tuition-free colleges have strict eligibility guidelines. These could be only admitting students who are residents of the state or applicants may need to demonstrate high financial need.

For example, Barclay College, a private Christian college, gives out full tuition scholarships to all resident students worth about $17,000. However, in order to be admitted to Barclay College, students must be committed to a Christian lifestyle and demonstrate that commitment during the admissions process.

When applying to tuition-free colleges, always be sure to carefully look over the eligibility requirements for a program. Whether that program requires a religious commitment, certain high school GPA or residency in a particular state, you’ll want to make sure you meet and can continue to meet the program’s eligibility requirements.

Which states have tuition-free colleges for residents?

There are a number of states that offer free-tuition programs. Here are a few examples, but this list is not comprehensive; it’s worth checking with your state of residence to see what it offers in terms of free-tuition programs and scholarship opportunities.

Michigan

Beginning in fall 2021, state legislators initiated Michigan’s biggest step toward tuition-free college accessibility. All University of Michigan schools — Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint — now offer free tuition for students who demonstrate academic achievement and are residents of Michigan for up to four years. The student must be a full-time undergraduate student whose family’s income is under $65,000.

New York

In order to qualify for New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, students must be residents of New York, get their degree from a two- or four-year State University of New York or City University of New York college program, be a full-time student and plan to live in New York after graduating for the duration they were in the Excelsior Scholarship program.

Tennessee

The Tennessee Promise scholarship program offers students a two-year, last-dollar scholarship, a type of scholarship that only funds any tuition costs or fees that are not provided by a Pell grant, HOPE scholarship or the Tennessee Student Assistance Award. Students must be high school students, attend either a Tennessee community or technical college and complete eight hours of community service per semester or enrollment term.

Paul Sisolak contributed to this report.

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