Are you worried about the massive cost of getting a college education? Here are two magic words for you: free college.
Free college? Is there even such a thing?
Yes, there is, if you play your cards right.
We got to thinking about free college when Princeton University recently announced that it’ll offer free tuition for students whose parents earn less than $100,000 per year. And when Fidelity Investments recently announced that it’ll offer free college degrees to its 18,000 employees, including entry-level customer service phone representatives.
Sure, that’s nice — if you happen to work for Fidelity. Or if you can get into Princeton, or if your kid can get into Princeton. But let’s face it, Princeton accepts only five out of every 100 applicants, so good luck getting in.
If you’re really interested in free college, though, we’ve done some research for you. We’ve concluded that, realistically, there are a few ways that you can go to college for free.
Let’s look at whether they’ll work for you. We also have some other ways you can ease the burden of paying for college.
The Skyrocketing Cost of College
Once upon a time, you could work your way through college and graduate relatively debt-free by keeping a part-time job on the side.
That was back in the mid-1980s, though, when the cost of college wasn’t off the charts.
Unfortunately, the cost of college tuition has risen faster than inflation every single year for decades now. It’s been relentless. That’s why 46 million Americans owe $1.75 trillion in student loans.
An analysis by The Penny Hoarder found that the average cost of a four-year degree at a public college or university has ballooned to more than $80,000. Since 1985, it’s increased by roughly 130%!
Do you have $80,000 handy? Yeah, neither do we.
How to Go to College for Free (or Mostly Free)
Despite that harsh financial reality, there are ways to get an education that won’t leave you hopelessly in debt. Here are three ideas for free college.
Work for the Right Company
One way to go to college for free? Work for a company that pays for college.
We found more than a dozen employers that’ll pay for a full ride in higher education, including Amazon, Boeing, Chipotle, Disney, Papa John’s, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Taco Bell, Target, Tyson Foods, Verizon and Walmart.
More common are assistance programs that reimburse or cover a capped annual amount toward a degree at a community college, technical school or four-year college. Many companies partner with certain schools — some brick and mortar, some online — so you can’t necessarily get your degree anywhere you like.
In today’s tight job market, free college — or at least tuition assistance — is becoming more popular as a job perk. Big companies are looking for ways to attract and keep workers.
EdAssist, a tuition program management business, has seen a whopping 33% jump in 2022 alone in the number of companies offering no-cost degree programs. That includes employers such as Citi, McDonald’s, Raytheon Technologies and Synchrony Financial.
Go to Community College First
Starting at a community college for two years before attending a four-year public university is a great way to save big on your education. Here we break down the benefits of making a community college transfer and how it could shave more than $14,000 off the cost of a bachelor’s degree.
For even bigger savings, though, attending certain community colleges in certain states can be totally free. Nearly 30 states offer tuition-free community college as long as you’re a legal resident of that state and you meet certain requirements. Keep in mind that you’d still be on the hook for the cost of books and housing and such.
The states in question include California, Indiana, Kentucky, New York and Tennessee.
Maine just joined them, covering tuition and fees for recent Maine high school grads to attend any of its seven community colleges. And Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships cover the full cost of state college tuition for high-achieving high school students.
The details and requirements vary by state. (Google is your friend here.) But in these states, you could potentially earn an associate degree or even a bachelor’s degree at a community college without paying any tuition at all.
Get a Senior Discount
It’s true: Older adults can go to college for free or cheap in all 50 states.
We’re living longer than ever before. So what can you do when you retire and want to keep your mind sharp, or if you’re still working but need to gain additional skills to stay competitive in the job market?
Go back to school! In the interest of continuing education, many colleges and universities offer reduced or free college for seniors (typically, adults 60 and up, although the rules vary).
Other Ways to Save on Tuition
Even if you don’t end up going to college for free, here are a few reliable ways to ease the burden of college costs.
- Every college student should fill out the FAFSA to see if the government can help cover the costs.
- Scholarships are another way to keep costs down. Here are 16 scholarships for adult students. You can also check with your school for scholarship opportunities.
- Like we mentioned before, starting at a community college for two years before attending a four-year public university is one way to save big. Here are other ways to pay for college without student loans.
So, can you really go to college for free? Or at least for a lot cheaper?
You really can.
Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.