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Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity-backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florida. ...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder, CFP®

UPDATED: Oct 14, 2013

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Students can attend college for free through the use of five different methods: scholarships, tuition-free programs, grants, employer-paid programs, and fee waivers.

The Higher Education system costs Americans $400 billion each year. A large portion of this money comes from the students themselves via student loans.

Despite the astounding amount of student loan debt strapped to this country’s citizens, it is possible to gain a college education for free. Future college students can utilize various taxpayer-supported government programs and forward-thinking universities to graduate without a large financial burden.


The most readily available way to reduce or eliminate college costs is through scholarships. Scholarships are awards of financial aid and are based on various items such as merit and need, to name a few.

Merit-based scholarships are based on GPAs, SAT scores, volunteer-work and other education-related factors. Although merit-based is one of the most popular types of scholarships, it does not require students to score in the top percentile. Many students are able to access merit scholarships due to their dedication to volunteer work or a commitment to a certain field of work.

Merit-based scholarships are very common, but many students fail to apply because they believe they are unworthy of the money. This should not be the case.

An open mind is the best attribute towards getting a free or reduced-cost education, according to Celest Horton, founder of How to Pay for College HQ Podcast.

“Don’t assume anything and don’t take anything for granted,” she said. “Most middle class families fear that they will not be eligible for Financial Aid and choose not the complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and potentially miss out.”

Another popular scholarship is athletic-based. A school can offer a full-ride scholarship for distinguished athletes as an incentive to pick a certain school.

Less common scholarships are available state-by-state. In an attempt to promote in-state education systems and increase the educational output of their residents, some states have created scholarship programs which keep educational pursuits within state lines.

One state-based scholarship is the HOPE scholarship for Georgia residents. The merit-based scholarship covers 90 percent of the tuition cost for in-state colleges and universities. Tennessee is another state that offers a similar scholarship program.

Priceless Opportunities

The types of scholarships vary, but the impact that financial aid has on a student’s life is invaluable.

Jason Lum, a college consultant and president of Scholar Edge, was able to fund his 10-year post high school education with scholarships. He won over $250,000 in scholarships for educational programs at prestigious schools across the country and was able to graduate debt-free.

Lum was not a distinguished student, or even an athlete, and yet he attended one of the most expensive schools in the country: Washington University. Instead of being turned away by the outrageous sticker price of around $70,000 per year, he applied anyways and his tuition costs were reduced heavily. The remainder of the cost was covered by his willingness to apply for multiple scholarships.

He viewed his research time as a part-time job, and now advises other students to do the same.

“If you are in college and you don’t want to invest the time or effort to apply for private scholarships … then don’t be surprised when you graduate four years later and you are buried in debt,” he said.

Passion and Sustainability

Amina Yamusah, founder of Breaking It Down, said prospective students should focus on two ideas when picking a major and a school: passion and sustainability. The student should be enthused to pursue a certain major, but they also need to know if the major will eventually pay off and if the school will be affordable in the end.

As a part of her organization, Yamusah connects black students with opportunities during and after college graduation. Most minority students face a financial burden because of college, so her organization connects them mainly with paid job opportunities.

Race aside, Yamusah said that it saddens her that students of all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds avoid college because they do not know about federal grants and scholarships that can reduce the cost of college. This occurs because of a system failure that usually starts in high school.

“It’s really on high schools to tell your students, to give them a realistic idea of the financial aid that you can receive,” she said.

Mission Profile

Entire books are published each year about various scholarship opportunities. The number of providers is vast, but the process for applying should not daunt students. Lum said that each student should research the organization that offers the scholarship and see if the student will fit within their “mission profile.”

One organization that granted Lum a scholarship is the Rotary Club. Their requirements focused more on a commitment to the community than on the highest grades. He said that a student with a 4.0 GPA with no-extracurricular work would lose every single time to a student that only received a 3.2 GPA but had a passion for volunteer work.

Finding that specific niche is incredibly important.

Even accepting one’s diversity and accentuating that feature can increase a student’s potential scholarship money. Yamusah said that students should find a school that is looking for students like themselves and leverage that quality.

“People are looking for diversity, not just in terms of race,” she said.

Tuition-Free Programs

Scholarships are the most common way to gain assistance for college, but thousands of students each year choose to forgo this process and look for tuition-free programs instead. The seven domestic programs that offer free tuition, and sometimes free room and board, are as follows:

  1. College of the Ozarks
  2. Alice Lloyd College
  3. Deep Springs College
  4. Berea College
  5. Curtis Institute of Music
  6. Barclay College
  7. Webb Institute

All of these domestic programs offer free-tuition, and some even offer free room and board. Several of the programs have a work requirement in place for the free tuition aspect. For example, at Alice Lloyd College normal tuition costs about $7,000, but students can receive it for free as long as they work over 10 hours a week. If the students are willing to work over 15 hours per week, they will receive free room and board as well.

Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of, said that even students who get accepted to a free tuition college may face additional costs.

“The main exception is the service academies, which are among the least expensive colleges and universities,” he said.

Free degrees are available through military-based educational programs. The five American service academies are as follows:

  1. United States Military Academy
  2. United States Coast Guard Academy
  3. United States Naval Academy
  4. United States Air Force Academy
  5. United States Merchant Marine Academy

These institutions offer a quality education for free and the graduates are guaranteed a job with a branch of the military. The downside is that students must serve in a military branch such as the Army or Marines for several years after graduation. 

For students willing to travel for a quality, free education, some international programs are available. In order to boost the local work environment, some cities and countries will offer free or highly reduced educational programs for international citizens. One example is the program offered by Norway. Students can gain an education in this country without paying for tuition fees.


Beyond scholarships and free tuition programs, there are federally-funded grants to increase the number and availability of college educations.

The most popular grant is the Pell Grant which is need-based and distributed mainly to undergraduate students.

Kantrowitz believes that more federal grants need to be given in order to reduce the cost of an education. He said the Pell Grant should be doubled or tripled so low-income students can afford to enroll in college. Currently, the maximum Pell Grant per year is $5,550.

“Since the government benefits from increases in the number of college graduates — Bachelor’s degree recipients pay more than twice the federal income tax of high school graduates — the government should be shouldering more of the cost,” he said.

Multiple other grants exist for students, such as the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National SMART Grant. Other specific grants fit into categories in a similar fashion as scholarships. There are various groupings such as the Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund for female students and the American Floral Endowment for agricultural students.

Employer Programs

The employment market is still in a difficult place, but that does not mean some employers are cancelling all of their employment benefit perks. Some companies offer tuition reimbursement programs where they pay for their employees to take a certain amount of college credits each semester.

There is one caveat to this though. The student and employee will have to pay for the education first and the employer will reimburse them later for the cost. Despite having to take out student loans or using savings for a college education, the employee will be able to repay their debts very quickly.

Fee Waivers

If a student is able to fund their entire college degree without cost, they might still face additional charges. Although small in comparison to tuition fees, the cost of college applications, prep classes, and the SAT can financially burden students.

Yamusah said that many of these preparatory fees can be waived, with a little work from the student. Before the tests occur or before sending out applications, students can apply to have the fees waived, which can save prospective students hundreds of dollars. Yamusah said that students will need a note from a guidance counselor or proof that he or she received a free or reduced lunch at school. These will help in getting the fee waived.

Yamusah said this first sign of financial aid is important, because without it, some students shy away from educational opportunities early.

“It can really be a financial burden for people and deter them right off the bat,” she said.

Right to Education

With all of the various ways that students can access a reduced or even free education, it is saddening how few students utilize the resources available.

Lum retold a story from his first year at college. Upon entering the library and checking out all of the books it had on scholarships, he noticed the pristine condition of each book. Nearly every book had remained on the shelves and were void of due dates. At that moment he realized how little competition there would be for certain scholarships.

Another reason for the pristine books: lazy college students.

He said there is no sense of urgency for students to apply for scholarships and other non-loan assistance.

“There is no sense of purpose on the part of individual students for applying for private scholarships,” Lum said. “They and their families have this mindset, ‘We will borrow … We’ll just spend the next 20 to 30 years paying it off’.”

When Yamusah works with students in the United States, she said it is an accepted fact that college is not free. But when she compares domestic programs with international programs, it’s easy to see that a big difference is present. For example, if a university in England threatens to raise its tuition price by $1,000, there are protests everywhere. If the same thing occurs in American, she said that “no one reacts.”

The link between higher education and student loans strengthens every year. Even though free-tuition programs and large scholarships exist, the idea of a free education has all but evaporated from the consumer’s eyes.

Horton said that most families fail to realize that these opportunities exist.

“The societal belief is that if loans are offered, then it is the only solution,” she said.