How to go to college for free

Free college is one of the best-kept secrets in higher education

Last updated: July 15, 2015 10:45 AM

Starbucks made headlines when it partnered with Arizona State University last year to finance four-year college degrees for employees. Through a combination of ASU grants, federal grants, and Starbucks kicking in the remainder, eligible employees of the coffee giant are able to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for the school's online degree program.

The savings are enormous for budget-minded baristas. Tuition for in-state students at public four-year institutions averaged $9,139 in the 2014-15 academic year, outstripping the five-year inflation rate by 17 percent, according to the research arm of the College Board. At a private four-year institution, the average annual tuition was $30,094 last year. All in, the total per-year cost, adding in room, board, and fees, at some private institutions exceeds $60,000.

But you don't have to be a macchiato-making maven to get a free college education. Consumer Reports has identified many ways to go to college free, no matter your household income. Some colleges do not charge tuition. Others have special tuition-free programs based on geography, high school achievement, or achievement relative to the rest of the school's incoming freshmen. Some programs require a service or work commitment—integrated on-campus work, specified post-graduate employment, or military service, for example—in exchange for tuition.

Here we highlight tuition-free colleges. Under various arrangements, at least eight U.S. colleges do not charge tuition (and that's not even accounting for the five U.S. Service Academies, which are also free-tuition options for students so inclined). Some even provide free room and board too. They might not be the typical State U., but they are accredited and, in most cases, highly rigorous academic programs with a real campuses.

If money is the limiting factor in choosing a college—or in choosing to go to college at all—search among these options to see if a free college program works for you.

Free nonsectarian colleges

Alice Lloyd College (Pippa Passes, Ky.)

Alice Lloyd College grants every student the Appalachian Leaders College Scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition for 10 semesters for qualified candidates from 108 counties in five states in Central Appalachia. Students are required to work at least 10 hours per week in jobs necessary for the normal operation of the college, such as computer technician, groundskeeper, lifeguard, and bookstore clerks. The college offers 13 degree programs and prepreprofessional programs.

Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia)

At this Philadelphia music conservatory all undergraduate and graduate students receive full-tuition scholarships, regardless of financial need. Admission is by audition. There is no age requirement—minimum or maximum—to audition and to be eligible for the full-tuition scholarship.

Deep Springs College (Big Pine, Calif.)

Full scholarships that include tuition, room, and board, cover all expenses for students at this small liberal-arts college now in its 98th year. Situated on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in the remote desert, the college is based on self-governance, intense contact with nature, ideas, and work (students milk cows, tend gardens, pitch hay, collect eggs, cook, clean, and do office work). Most students attend for two years then continue at competitive four-year institutions. The college says that in recent years it sent seven grads to Yale University. Deep Springs is a male-only college, but anticipates a change to co-ed within the next few years.

Webb Institute (Glen Cove, N.Y.)

This school, on the north shore of Long Island, gives each of its 80 undergraduates a full-tuition scholarship and boasts 100 percent job placement. Students' costs are limited to room, board, books, laptop, and software. Webb is highly specialized: All students double major in naval architecture and marine engineering. Admission is highly selective.

William E. Macaulay Honors College (New York, N.Y.)

For New York State residents, admission to Macaulay comes with an automatic full-tuition merit scholarship, a free laptop, and a $7,500 grant to pursue research. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), Maccaulay offers 475 different majors across the eight senior campuses of CUNY, but also has its own, separate building in Manhattan for its 1,900 students.

Read the Consumer Reports back-to-school shopping guide for info on everything from cars to computers, for grade school to graduate school.

Free religious colleges

Barclay College (Haviland, Kan.)

This Christian Bible college provides an automatic full-tuition scholarship to all students who are admitted and who will reside at the college. Founded by Quakers, Barclay College offers degree programs related to religious pursuits, such as youth ministry, pastoral ministry, and Christian elementary education.

Berea College (Berea, Ky.)

Offering 28 different bachelor’s degrees, the college provides a four-year tuition scholarship to every admitted student. Most are from the Appalachian region, and the college seeks out students who have little or no ability to pay. The college has a “Christian identity” and is committed to social justice. Each student is expected to work at least 10 hours per work through the Berea Labor Program, which provides jobs that contribute to the university. 

College of the Ozarks (Point Lookout, Mo.)

No student pays tuition at this Christian liberal-arts college. The College of the Ozarks Cost of Education scholarship promises to cover all expenses that are not met by federal grants and the college’s Work Education Program. Every full-time student works a campus job 15 hours per week and two additional 40-hour weeks.

Service academies

The five United States Service Academies are four-year colleges that also prepare their students to be commissioned officers in the U.S. armed forces. In exchange for a completely free college education, students commit, for the most part, to serve a specified term of duty plus an additional time period in the reserves. The academies:

United States Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

United States Coast Guard Academy (New London, Conn.)

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

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

United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Md.)

—Susan Feinstein

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