How To (Really) Go To College for Free

Many students get their diplomas for free through various scholarship programs, universities, and sometimes by serving in the military

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Some people dream of going to college for free. In some countries that's more of a reality: there isn't that weight of student debt that can haunt you for the rest of your life. Thinking about getting your college paid for seems like a daunting task. However, it might just be possible for you to obtain your college degree at little to no cost, if you play your cards right.

As to date, the national student loan debt rate has reached $1.7 trillion. Here’s the breakdown on student loan debt: more than 43.2 million student borrowers are in debt by an average of $39,351 each. If you aren't a natural-born genius, it feels almost impossible to pay for college without the help of federal and personal loans. But, if you know where to look, then you’ll be able to find hacks and tips on how to attend college for free. Get creative with it -- there are more opportunities out there than you might think. 

Grantford’s goal is to assist students through the college admission process, including finding scholarships and by providing financial aid assistance, tips, and tricks. Read on for our guide on how to go to college for free. 

A lot of scholarship programs also have various mentoring opportunities for their scholarship recipients, both before and during their college journey. The general belief of these organizations is that through the proper mentorship students can thrive throughout their education. Whether it’s through peer support or a professor, students receive an individualized approach through mentorship. Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Apply to Lots of Scholarships & Programs

There are national scholarship programs, mostly non-profit organizations, that you can apply to that give people merit-based scholarships to attend some of the nations top universities. Many of these organizations have partnerships with these colleges, and the application process can be long and rigorous. Despite their competitive nature, students should take a shot at some of these opportunities.

The Posse Foundation, founded by Deborah Bial in 1989, is a program that provides full-tuition, merit based scholarships to their appointed Posse Scholars. It’s very competitive, with an average of 15,000 students competing for 660 scholarship slots per year. To be eligible, you must be a high school senior nominated by your school or a local community-based organization, proving your dedication to leadership and your connections to others. They also connect you with their vast network of Posse alumni. 

The Gates Millennium Scholars Program, similarly to Posse, is also dedicated to granting students with the funds to attend college. Founded in 1999 by Bill and Melinda Gates, the program selects 1,000 scholars per year to students who are in financial need and meet the academic requirements set by the council. They provide resources to those looking to complete their bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. 

More programs like PeerForward, the National College Advising Corps, and the Opportunity Network assist students with removing the financial barriers associated with college. Other scholarships you can check out can be found on Grantford’s blog, and you can apply to our annual Recycled Essay Scholarship

Harvard College is dedicated to making education affordable. Their admissions process is need-blind, meaning that your financial status has no say in whether you are admitted or not. 20% of admitted Harvard students' families pay nothing to attend. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Try to Get into an Ivy League 

Some colleges that have large endowments will admit students to their university at little to no cost. If you’re able to get into one of these accredited universities, they will offer you a very solid need-based financial aid package, and plenty of merit-based scholarships. Harvard College offers free tuition for admitted students whose households make under $65,000 a year. Harvard also offers a variety of free online courses to the public. Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, and top schools such as MIT, UPenn, and Stanford all offer similar deals for low-income students. 

Sign up for the United States Military 

Signing up for the United States Military can benefit your education and professional training. As an incentive, reserve military members and those on active duty are eligible for tuition assistance, paying for up to 100% of your tuition. Their student loan repayment qualified for those in active duty, in the Air Force, the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and the National Guard. Each program offers different resources and has various eligibility requirements. There is a separate application for each line of duty. 

The GI Bill allows those who are a service member or veteran paid tuition and fees alongside a stipend for housing and additional costs. The benefits are based on how long you’ve served and can be applied to your family. If a family member has passed during service after September 10, 2001, you might be qualified for the Fry Scholarship, which gives the recipient the same benefits as those in active duty. 

The pandemic has made access to a college education strained on those who are low-income and come from other underprivileged backgrounds. As of October 2020, 62% of 2020 high school graduates ages 16 to 24 were enrolled in colleges or universities, down from 66% in 2019.Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Work for a University to Take Classes

When you work for a university, they will allow you to take classes there for free. By working at a university, you’ll save loads of cash on tuition, room and board. Although it can be difficult to be working full-time, simultaneously while being a student, your pockets will benefit. Some colleges will only allow you to take a few classes at a time, so it might take longer for you to get a degree. If your parents or guardian works for a university, most of the time, you can attend that college for free or at an extreme discount. When you are hired for a position at a college, whether that be a janitor, cook and so on, you can receive free classes for credit toward a degree. Try looking into it further by asking a local university who might be hiring near you. 

Attend Community College for Free Tuition

Some states offer free tuition when you attend a community college and meet the eligibility requirements. Generally, you’ll need to prove your financial need and have a good academic record to qualify. Programs include the Arkansas Future Grant, California Promise, the Delaware’s SEED Program, the Hawai’i Promise Scholarship, Indiana 21st Century Scholars Program, Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship, Maryland Community College Promise, Missouri A+ Scholarship, the New York Excelsior Scholarship, and more. If you don’t live in one of these states, look to your local community college to see if you’ll qualify for any additional need-based aid.

Each year, almost 11% of all undergraduates study abroad with that number steadily increasing each year. As travel restrictions start to evolve with the ongoing pandemic, studying abroad has become accessible after the brief halt in global travel. Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Study in a Foreign Country 

Some countries offer free tuition for their citizens and international students. Depending on the destination, It might be even more affordable to travel abroad for your education than to remain in the states. As a United States citizen you also are still eligible for grants, loans and scholarships from the Department of Education. By studying abroad, you open up plenty of opportunities for studying something very unique and the ability to learn another language. If you study in a  country that doesn't speak English as their primary language, then you might be required to learn and take classes in their language. It could be a pretty lonely path, especially if you get homesick. Staying in touch with loved ones with a time difference can be tricky. But, if you have a travel bug and are willing to look into studying in a foreign country, this could be the best decision you make for your wallet. For more information, read our article about Study Abroad Scholarships to Look Out For

Want More Tips? 

If you’re looking to find more scholarships, or other ways of achieving your college degree for free, look at scholarship search engines online. We recommend searching via the State Department of Education, our Go Financial Aid Facebook and Twitter pages, and free scholarship search engines like Niche, fastweb, College Board, Scholly, and If you’re still looking to make a college decision, check out college selection search engines such as US News and Cappex

Liz Anastasiadis
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