The promise of free tuition is a strong draw for low-income students. But many free tutorials have warnings that keep them from delivering on the promise.
Let’s break down what you need to know about tuition-free colleges along with a list of some US colleges that are tuition-free. We also share some foreign colleges that also have free tuition programs that may be of interest.
You may also want to dive into our guide to paying for college.
Restrictions on Free Tutorials
While free education programs make college more affordable, there are several limitations that families should be aware of.
Free tuition does not mean free college. Most free tuition programs cover the cost of tuition and fees, but not room and board, books and supplies, or other college expenses. Some don’t cover fees, which can be significant at some colleges. At a community college, the textbooks can make up a significant portion of the tuition costs.
Many free-tuition programs are last-dollar, meaning that all other sources of financial aid must first be applied to tuition before the free-tuition program covers the remaining tuition costs. This can prevent a student from using the Federal Pell Grant and state grants to cover living expenses and other college expenses.
The student may need to be a resident of a particular city or state. The student may need to attend and graduate from certain public schools in the city. The student may agree to live in the city or state for several years after graduation.
Some free tuition programs require the student to enroll in college immediately upon graduation from high school.
Many free tuition programs require the students to enroll in college full-time. The student may also have to stay on campus.
Some free tuition programs are limited to students with demonstrated financial need or to Pell Grant recipients.
Some free tuition programs require all students to have part-time on-campus employment. Others require the student to participate in community service during the academic year and summer.
Some programs with free tuition require the student to hold at least a minimum GPA, such as a 2.0, 2.5, or 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.
Certain education tax benefits, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), Lifetime Learning Tax Credit (LLTC), and tax-exempt scholarships, are based on amounts spent on tuition, fees, and course materials (e.g., textbooks, supplies, and equipment). If tuition is paid through a free tuition program, it can reduce or eliminate your ability to qualify for these tax benefits.
Colleges without colleges in the US
Federally accredited tutorials require all students living on campus to work as part of the college learning experience, regardless of financial need. Six of these colleges offer students free tuition:
There are also several colleges that are not federally recognized tutorials, but where students must work and receive free tuition:
Deep Springs College offers free room and board in addition to free tuition.
There are several trading schools that offer free classes.
The United States military academies offer free tuition, room and board. The students are required to serve in the United States Armed Forces upon graduation.
Related: Military and VA Education Benefits to Pay for College
In addition to these colleges, there are dozens of colleges with “no loans” financial aid policies that offer free tuition to low-income students. These colleges include Ivy League Institutions, MIT, and Stanford University.
Other colleges that offer free tuition to all or some of their students include:
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (NY) previously offered free tuition for more than a century, but had to start charging tuition in 2012 due to financial difficulties. The college is raising funds to return to free tuition in the future.
Several medical schools offer free education to all students, regardless of financial need. These include Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente and New York University. Other medical schools offer free tuition based on financial need. These colleges include Columbia University, Cornell University, and Washington University in St. Louis. UCLA offers free tuition based on academic merit.
Some community colleges do not charge tuition. For example, the California College Promise Program, formerly known as the BOG Fee Waiver, offers free tuition to community colleges in the state. Students with family incomes less than about 150% of the poverty line are eligible for tuition and fees waivers.
At other community colleges, the combination of federal and state grants may be enough to cover the cost of tuition for some low-income students, such as those eligible for the maximum Federal Pell Grant.
Several states offer college pledge programs that cover tuition at a public university in the state for students graduating from a public high school. These programs include the New York Excelsior Scholarship, Oregon Promise, Rhode Island Promise, and Tennessee Promise.
There are also hundreds of college promise programs offered by specific cities, such as the Kalamazoo Promise, Seattle Promise, and Pittsburgh Promise. Most are last dollar financial aid programs, assuming that all other sources of financial aid are applied to tuition before the remaining tuition is covered by the pledge program. Full education is often limited to students who have attended public elementary and middle school for 12 years, not just those who have graduated from public high school.
University of the People is an accredited online college that does not charge tuition, although it does charge a course assessment fee.
The Free Tuition Campaign advocates for free public tuition programs.
Which foreign colleges have free tuition?
Two dozen countries offer their citizens free public colleges. A few also offer free tuition to international students.
The following countries offer free tuition to international students, including US students. However, some of these colleges offer classes in the local language, not English.
Brazil (lessons in Portuguese)Czech Republic (lessons in Czech language)FinlandGermanyGreece (lessons in Greek)IcelandLuxembourgNorwayPanama
Free tuition does not include living expenses. In some of these countries, such as Norway, the cost of living is high. (U.S. federal student loans can be used at about 400 foreign universities to pay for housing, meals, and other college costs, but funding is limited to federal student loans, not grants. 529 college savings plans can be used to pay for living expenses at these colleges abroad, but no transportation.)
Other countries, such as France, Slovenia, and Sweden, are open to European Union (EU) citizens, but not to US students.
A dozen countries offer free education only to their own citizens. These countries are Argentina, Austria, Denmark, Egypt, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Poland, Scotland, Spain, Turkey and Uruguay.
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