20 tuition free colleges combatting student loan debt

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May 15, 2019

20 tuition-free colleges combatting the college debt crisis

It's no secret that the college debt situation in America has reached crisis levels in recent years. In fact, in the past decade, in-state tuition at public universities has outpaced inflation by a hefty 3.1%, according to the College Board' Annual Survey of Colleges. The number marks an "average annual increase of $270 in 2018 dollars, compared with $170 per year between 1988–89 and 1998–99 and $250 per year between 1998-99 and 2008–09," according to The College Board.

The good news is that at private four-year universities, the growth rate of tuition declined from 2.9% in the late '80s and '90s to just 2.3% in the last two decades. Furthermore, even the public universities' figure is down some from 4.1% and 4.2% in previous decades. Still, that hasn't changed the fact that college debt figures are higher than ever.

The latest 2019 figures, for example, show more than 44 million former students who collectively owe a total of $1.5 trillion, reported by Forbes based on data from the Institute for College Access and Success. The average student borrower is saddled with $37,172 in loans (reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York)—a staggering $20,000 increase from just 13 years ago. As of 2016, the average student debt per capita was $4,920, and student loan debt has surpassed both credit card debt and auto loans to become the second biggest consumer debt category in the nation.

Facing these sobering statistics, a number of public and private institutions have been working to tackle the issue. Some are accomplishing this via work college programs where students work on campus or within the community in exchange for tuition assistance. There are currently seven members of the Work Colleges Consortium (WCC), each of which is federally recognized and overseen by the U.S. Department of Education.

A number of states and cities are getting involved, too, offering grants and other assistance to their residents. New York, for example, recently rolled out the Excelsior Scholarship, which offers free tuition to certain students independent of academic achievement. Oregon, California, and New Jersey all have community college assistance programs and nearly 20 states in total offer some sort of free tuition initiative. Moreover, Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities are providing free tuition to the most academically advanced students in order to bolster the quality of their student bodies.

To give you an idea of the current landscape, Stacker had gathered information on 20 colleges that offer some sort of free tuition to its students. Read on to see which ones you recognize.

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Stanford University - California

Nearly all of the Ivy League colleges offer free tuition to the most gifted and accomplished students in an effort to get the brightest candidates through their doors—and Stanford is no exception. The elite California university hands out dozens of merit-based scholarships every year, ensuring they never have to turn away an accomplished student based on financial need. Funded through a combination of alumni donations and endowments, Stanford covers the bulk of the tuition for students unable to pay (although they may be asked to contribute a portion of summer income), and the parent contribution for any family with an annual income below $65,000 is waived completely.

Texas A&M University - Texas

This public research university north of Houston, Texas, offers lower-income students something called the Aggie Assurance program. According to the initiative, students who are accepted into the university with family incomes of $60,000 or less are guaranteed enough assistance via scholarships and grants to be able to attend the college tuition-free. In 2016, the Texas A&M system endowment was 9.8 billion, making it one of the top 10 highest endowments in America, according to an annual U.S. News survey based on the fiscal year 2017.

Alice Lloyd College - Kentucky

As a WCC university, this religious work college situated in Pippa Passes, Ky., is rooted in a philosophy it calls “Purpose Road,” which encourages students to have strong character and to live ethical lives. Even its street names espouse this philosophy, with roads called Conscience, Duty, Courage, and Consecration. For regular students, tuition is $7,000 a year, and those in need pay nothing. All students either work on campus or take part in outreach positions within the community. The college is aimed at Appalachian students specifically who come from low-income households.

New Jersey Community Colleges - New Jersey

In January of this year, the state of New Jersey rolled out a $25 million program to fund free tuition for some eligible students at 13 of its community colleges. In May, authorities got the green light to extend the program to the remaining six institutions, making tuition free to a selection of low-income students at every community college in the state. To qualify for the so-called Community College Opportunity Grants, students must enroll for at least six credits, complete a federal and state financial aid application, and demonstrate academic progress.

Antioch College - Ohio

Antioch College in Monroe County, Ohio, has long made strides to make its four-year liberal arts university affordable, if not completely free, to its students. Historically, it has offered its merit-based Horace Mann Fellowship to a selection of its top students, covering four consecutive years of full-time tuition (for a total value of about $121,000). Between 2011 and 2015, it offered the scholarship to every student that was accepted in an attempt to bolster enrollments numbers after a turbulent period. Last year, administrators handed out $2.2 million in scholarships and grants and the website notes the school's “commitment to affordability.”

College of the Ozarks - Missouri

This conservative Christian college is a WCC non-tuition higher learning facility where students work on campus in exchange for their education. To be admitted, a prospective student typically needs to demonstrate financial need, although roughly 10% are admitted on other criteria. The faculty also looks for students who possess a personal commitment to making positive changes in the world upon graduation. The college has been featured on “Fox & Friends.”

City and State Universities of New York - New York

In 2017, New York launched the Excelsior Scholarship, making it the first state in the nation to offer a no-tuition program that's not linked to academic achievement. The program, which is available to New York residents earning $125,000 or less, offers free two- or four-year education at any of the schools at the City University of New York or State University of New York. The scholarship is part of a broader state initiative to make college more accessible. Up to 940,000 middle-class families could potentially qualify, although only about 20,000 students received the scholarship during its first year, according to the Center for an Urban Future, prompting some criticism.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Massachusetts

All incoming students whose families earn less than $90,000 a year can attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Institute (MIT) tuition-free. The school is one of just five “need-blind” colleges in the united States (the others being Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Amherst), meaning it doesn't weigh the student's ability to pay during the admissions process. According to the school's website, six out of every 10 students at MIT receive need-based aid.

Berea College - Kentucky

Berea College in southern Kentucky is another WCC school. Through this program, Berea offers students a “Tuition Promise Scholarship” that's equivalent to about $100,000 over four years. Although the university identifies itself as a Christian college, it emphasizes religion that's inclusive and non-dogmatic, explaining: “Berea College strives to be a place where people with various Christian interpretations, different religious traditions, and no religious tradition work together in support of Berea's Great Commitments.” One out of three attendees is a student of color and 8% of the student body hails from outside of the U.S.

Oregon Community Colleges - Oregon

In 2015, the Oregon Legislature approved the Oregon Promise grant, a program that assists recent high school and GED test graduates with tuition costs, sometimes covering 100%. The tuition aid can be applied to any of the western state's 17 community colleges for up to 90 credits. The amount of assistance ranges from $1,000 to $3,834 per year for full-time students, depending on how many credits the student is taking, how much they qualify for in Pell grants, and the cost of tuition at the school they're attending. The only portion the student pays for is a $50 co-pay per term.


Curtis Institute of Music - Pennsylvania

At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, tuition is 100% free to all of its students in both undergraduate and graduate level programs. The only catch is that they must pay their own room and board, which averages about $14,363 per year, as well as miscellaneous costs such as textbooks and administrative fees which add another $6,780 in costs per year. Still, given that the Pennsylvania conservatory is among the most elite in the world, it's an exceptionally low contribution. Students who attend the music institute study composition, piano, violin, voice, opera, and more, receiving either a Bachelor of Music, Master of Music in Opera, or Professional Studies Certificate in Opera.

Sterling College - Vermont

This environmentally focused work college is based out of Craftsbury Common, Vt., where 80% of the university's electricity is generated via solar power and 30% of its food is grown on campus. Although not a tuition-free college, per se, it is part of the WCC and offers a work program, which all students are required to participate in, that contributes a minimum of $1,650 toward college tuition. Students attending the eco-minded university graduate with 50% less student loan debt than than the national average, according to the WCC.

Haskell Indian Nations University - Kansas

Situated in Lawrence, Kan., the objective of Haskell Indian Nations University is to make college education free to Native American Indians and Alaskan Natives of federally recognized tribes. According to its website, each tribe that sends a student to its university saves roughly $20,000 per year, allowing them to use that money for other community programs and outreach. There is no tuition at all, and just a few miscellaneous fees totalling roughly $740 for on-campus students and $240 for those living off-campus. The college has an 86.5% acceptance rate and to apply, students must submit an application with ACT/SAT scores, tribal verification, and a $10 application fee.

Bethany Global University - Minnesota

Bethany Global University is a southern missions college in Bloomington, Minn., that trains students to be Christian missionaries abroad, offering free tuition along with the tools necessary to begin a “lifetime of impact overseas.” The federally accredited higher learning institution offers students Bachelor of Arts degrees with majors in Intercultural Ministry, Entrepreneurship, and Education. The tuition is paid for via a combination of Pell Grants and the school's own scholarship program. To be eligible for those scholarships, student must have a CGPA of 2.0 or higher (or pass the GED with an average C score or higher), meet physical fitness standards, and demonstrate Christian lifestyle and character, according to the university's website.

Paul Quinn College - Texas

Although Paul Quinn College is a historically black college (HBCU), founded originally by African Methodist Episcopal preachers to educate freed slaves, it now hosts students of a variety of racial and ethnic makeups (23% of its student population is currently Hispanic, for example). Located just outside Dallas, Texas, it's the only WCC work college that sits in an urban area. In 2015, it launched its work program, dubbed the “New Urban College Model,” which promises students will graduate with no more than $10,000 in student loan debt. All Paul Quinn students, regardless of financial need, must participate in the work program and have a 2.75 high school GPA to be admitted.

Cooper Union - New York

New York's prestigious Cooper Union, which sits in Manhattan's East Village, was established in 1859 as part of an endowment aimed at providing free college education to the working class. It offers undergraduate and master's degrees in art, architecture, and engineering disciplines. The school briefly began charging partial tuition in 2013 following an internal financial crisis; however, protests and criticism (including a lawsuit) led it to reverse the decision last year, pledging that it will again offer no-cost tuition within 10 years.

Blackburn College - Illinois

Located in Carlinville, Ill., Blackburn College offers its student a unique work program (part of the WCC), that's managed entirely by its students—the only one of its kind in the nation. For students who are admitted, the college picks up 100% of their tuition, requiring only the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) per standard Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. The university offers a wide range of Bachelor of Arts degrees including Political Science, Mathematics, History, Biology, Computer Science, Criminal Justice, and more.

City College of San Francisco - California

San Francisco residents who have lived in the state of California for more than a year are eligible for free tuition to the City College of San Francisco via its unique Free City program. The program provides tuition for students to attend the school to get two-year associate degrees, or to take prerequisite courses to transfer to four-year universities. The taxpayer-funded initiative is a joint effort between the school and the city-county of San Francisco. Some out-of-area students may be able to qualify for non-resident exemptions, depending on a variety of factors.

United States Air Force Academy - Colorado

For prospective students interested in military service, the United States Air Force Academy is 100% tuition-free for its enrollees. Although the U.S. Air Force values the education at approximately $416,000, it charges nothing for its cadets to attend, explaining: “All that is required in return is your commitment to serve as an officer in the Air Force. The length of the commitment depends on your career path and other opportunities, such as graduate or medical school, that may extend it.” The Colorado-based school is fairly selective, however, accepting just 12% of its applicant pool.

Warren Wilson College - North Carolina

Another eco-focused higher learning institution, Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., is aimed at fostering “environmental sustainability, diversity, and social justice.” Outside Magazine named the school—which requires students to complete 100 community-service hours before graduation—one of its top 25 colleges. Beginning in 2018, all incoming students from North Carolina demonstrating financial need became eligible to attend tuition-free, paying their way with various merit, athletic, and need-based scholarships which cover the difference after Federal Student Aid.


Yale University - Connecticut

Yale University is another Ivy League school known for offering free-tuition scholarships to a large number of its students, mainly to ensure that the school secures a prestigious student body filled with the most talented students it can recruit. Although its undergraduate tuition runs about $50,000 a year, Yale promises free tuition, room, and board to all incoming students whose families earn less than $65,000 (similarly to Stanford). Like its California counterpart, the elite Connecticut university also relies heavily on alumni donations and other endowments to keep its full-ride programs running.


University of the People - Online

University of the People is an accredited online college that offers tuition-free associate and bachelor degrees in Business Administration, Computer Science, and Health Science, as well as select master's degrees. “It is our goal to make higher education accessible to all, anytime, anywhere,” the website says. Many of UoPeople's professors volunteer their time and the school charges a $60 application fee, along with $100 to $200 Assessment Fees per completed course to keep it running. That makes a four-year undergraduate degree roughly $4,060 and a 15-month MBA about $2,460. One hundred percent of students who apply are accepted and those who can't afford the fees can be eligible for scholarships.

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