Yes, there are some colleges and universities you can attend for free! There are some limitations, though: some are highly specialized, and the Ivy Leagues are need-based. The military institutions require years of service, and some of the small institutions require labor or some other form of service in exchange for tuition. But, if you’re willing work, or have financial need, or just want to study something very, very specific, here are 25 colleges and universities where you can do it for free!
1. Alice Lloyd College
Alice Lloyd College was founded in 1923. It is a 4-year liberal arts college located in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, a town named in honor of the Robert Browning Society that provided a donation to build the first post office in town. It provides free tuition for central Appalachian residents; that is roughly 108 counties throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, and West Virginia. All students must work 10-20 hours a week in exchange for the free tuition.
2. Barclay College
Are you a Quaker? Interested in theology? Barclay College is a 4-year Quaker liberal arts college located in Haviland, Kansas. Founded by the Religious Society of Friends, Barclay is primarily still known for degrees in the ministry, but offers a Christian education focused on service with degrees in leadership, education, and business. This small school offers fully-paid tuition for any full-time student living on campus, so all it will cost you is room and board. You were going to live somewhere anyway, right?
3. Berea College
Berea College is a highly acclaimed liberal arts college, recognized as one of the best in the US. Located in Berea, Kentucky, Berea College has an important place in history as the first integrated, co-ed college in the south, accepting women and African-Americans as far back at 1855. All students receive full scholarships in exchange for working jobs in the college or in community service throughout the Appalachian region, including programs keeping mountain crafts and traditions alive. Berea accepts only students who need financial assistance according to FAFSA, and for a little work, you get a $100,000 education – and who wouldn’t weave baskets for their tuition?
4. Brown University
Brown University, an Ivy League research institution in Providence, RI, is one of the handful of colleges established before the Revolutionary War, so it has a bit of a pedigree. It’s got a long list of distinguished alumni, many winners of national and international prizes, and an acceptance rate of less than 9%. And it’s on this list because if your family makes less than $60,000 a year, you can go for free. Like other Ivy League schools, Brown wants the best of the best, whether they can afford it or not, and if you can get in, they’ll pay your way.
5. College of the Ozarks
At The College of the Ozarks, all students get a free ride. Well, not exactly. This small, Christian liberal-arts college doesn’t charge tuition, but students have to work for it. For tuition, 15 hours a week working in some institutional job station, keeping the college going (including a fruitcake bakery, which allows you to tell people that fruitcakes paid for your college education); during breaks, full 40-hour work weeks; for room and board, summer jobs. They’re proud of their character-building, “Hard-Work U” reputation, and students seem to appreciate their hard-earned bachelor’s degrees – especially when they have no student loans to pay back.
6. Columbia University
Columbia University, one of only nine colleges established before the Revolutionary War, and home of the Pulitzer Prize, is one of the most important, respected, and influential universities in the world. It’s the alma mater of Nobel laureates, titans of business, and Founding Fathers. And, if your family makes less than $60,000 a year, and you can get in, you can go for free. You could have a degree from the institution that educated both Presidents Roosevelt and President Obama, for free. You can study with some of the greatest minds alive, for free. How’s that for a college value?
7. Cooper Union
Cooper Union is a small, private college in the East Village of Manhattan. Originally modeled after the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art has schools of engineering, fine arts, and architecture only, and is highly regarded, with a list of astoundingly influential and successful alumni including Thomas Edison, Milton Glaser, and Norman Bridwell (creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog). Up until 2013, tuition at Cooper Union was entirely free; since a financial crisis, however, that guarantee was cut back. All students pay half tuition, but many still get full scholarships.
8. Cornell University
Ithaca, NY – rolling hills and valleys, cold blue lakes, green forests, and Cornell University – the Ivy League. Such a lush, beautiful life has to be out of reach, you think. And while it’s competitive, it’s not expensive if you fall under that $60,000 a year mark – it’s free. So, for nothing, you can study at one of only two colleges with a Land Grant, Sea Grant, Space Grant, and Sun Grant. For free, you can study at the first American university to establish a university press, still one of the biggest and most respected UPs in the world.
9. Curtis Institute of Music
The Curtis Institute of Music is a music conservatory in Philadelphia. Founded in 1921, the Curtis Institute has traditionally trained musicians for the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as opera singers, pianists, and composers. Acceptance is extremely competitive; the institute only accepts the number of students it needs to seat an orchestra and populate an opera company, along with some composers and solo pianists, so that’s only around 150 students. But every one of those students gets a full scholarship. If you’ve got what it takes, go for it!
10. Deep Springs College (Jr. college)
Deep Springs College is a two-year, all-male (for the time being – female students may be admitted in 2015) institution. Located in a remote valley in California, Deep Springs is a unique, self-sustaining small community. Tuition is free for all students, with an expectation that students will work or perform service on the college’s ranch, farm, or community. So it’s just an associate’s degree, you ask? You can stop there, but most students transfer to universities after their two years, including many to the Ivy League. Deep Springs has a high proportion of students going on to graduate degrees.
11. Duke University
Perkins Library via Wikimedia Commons
One of the most competitive colleges in the nation, Duke University has a reputation that ranks it with the Ivy League. Its medical school is top tier, and its enormous wealth gives Duke students access to more research than many large research universities. Plus, it has a lemur research center. And if you make less than $60,000 a year, it’s free. Now, they only accept around 10% of applicants, so that’s a tall order. But, lemurs.
12. Harvard University
It must cost a fortune to go to Harvard, right? Well, if you’re paying for it, yes. But as part of Harvard’s efforts to admit low income and middle-class students, Harvard offers free tuition for many students based on financial need. You heard that right: if your family makes less that $65,000 a year, you can go to Harvard for free – tuition, room, board, and fees. That’s if you can get in, of course: Harvard remains highly competitive, so only the highest-achieving students are likely to get in. But it’s nice to know that Harvard is committed to making sure that anyone with the academic talent to get in can benefit from the reputation of a Harvard degree. For nothing.
13. Macaulay Honors College (CUNY)
A college of the City University of New York, Macauley Honors College offers full tuition scholarships and accepts only the most high-achieving, academically driven students. The Macauley Honors College is designed to replicate the close working relationships and support of a small liberal arts college, but with the resources of the City University of New York, a large, urban research university. If you’ve got the academic chops, and want an experimental, unconventional setting, with challenging research projects and great prospects, apply to the Macauley Honors College – they’ll pay your way.
14. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Would you like to get a Nobel Prize someday? A MacArthur genius grant? Maybe you’d like to be a Rhodes scholar? Well, MIT would be a place to start – their students, graduates, and faculty have an exceptionally high proportion of honors. This polytechnic institute, located in Cambridge, MA, is legendary for its excellence. That’s because they only accept the very best students in science and engineering, of course. And if you qualify, and your family makes less than $75,000 a year, you can go for free.
15. Stanford University
Let’s not beat around the bush – Stanford is probably the hardest American university to get in. It’s the reason Silicon Valley exists. Without Stanford, you’d probably not be reading this article on a computer. But here’s the thing: if you get in, and your family makes less than $60,000, you go for free. Stanford, like many other elite institutions, maintains a commitment to helping every excellent student find a way to get a world-class education and make a difference in the world. That’s worth investing the time it takes to fill out an application.
16. Texas A&M University
Texas A&M is one of the top public universities in the US, and the largest university in Texas, which is saying something considering Texas’ “everything is bigger” reputation. It’s a land, sea, and space grant university, and its advances in science, especially oil and energy, make it a world leader in scientific research. It’s also got a little football team you may have heard of. But what you may not know is that, if your family makes less than $60,000 a year (that magic number again), you won’t have to pay a bit of tuition. Plus, you’ll be eligible for other grants and scholarships for books and fees, so you can tell the lenders sorry, no thanks.
17. United States Air Force Academy
The Air Force Academy is the newest of the US military academies, created not long after the National Security Act of 1947 created a separate Air Force. Like all military academies, the purpose of the Air Force Academy is to train officers; students graduate with a bachelor of science degree and the rank of second lieutenant in the Air Force. It’s a process to get in, including physical and mental tests and recommendation from a member of congress, but all those who get in get free tuition, room and board, and a monthly stipend.
18. United States Coast Guard Academy
The Coast Guard Academy trains students as officers for the Coast Guard. Students choose one of eight possible majors, graduating with a bachelor of science and an ensign’s rank. Most majors are in some form of engineering, though government and management are also offered, and all students take courses in leadership and organization, for obvious reasons. Unlike the other academies, you do not need a congressional recommendation to get in – just meet the requirements (that’s supposed to prevent bad, politically-motivated recommendations). If you’re selected to this small class (only 200 graduating every year), you don’t pay a dime.
19. United States Merchant Marine Academy
Also known by its location, King’s Point, the US Merchant Marine Academy trains students in a wide variety of skills needed for military service, shipping, and marine life. Graduates from the Merchant Marine Academy have a lot more freedom than graduates of the other military academies; rather than being committed to one branch of the military, graduates can choose careers in other branches, or in civilian service, or as officers in the Merchant Marine. As long as you meet all of the academic requirements (including age and citizenship), get a congressional recommendation, and pass the physical tests, you can attend at King’s Point for no cost.
20. United States Military Academy at West Point
West Point is the grandaddy of all military academies, and one of the most respected institutions of any kind in the US. Not only have many of the great military and political minds of the last two centuries been educated there, but their civil engineering program (the first in the US) influenced all those that came after it. While most graduates enter the Army as second lieutenant, they may choose any branch of the military. And, again, if you get in, you qualify for full scholarships.
21. United States Naval Academy
The US Naval Academy is second only to West Point in age and reputation among the military academies – but usually not in the traditional Army-Navy football game, which Navy currently leads by a healthy margin of wins. Students at Annapolis (the city in Maryland where the Naval Academy is located) graduate to either ensigns in the Navy or second lieutenants in the Marines. As with the other academies, Navy is highly selective, needs a congressional recommendation, and pays a full ride, tuition, room, and board, in exchange for a service obligation after graduation.
22. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
UNC Chapel Hill is what we like to call a Public Ivy – a public research university with the quality and reputation of the Ivy League. Known for its sports legacy, the loyalty of its alumni, and one of the best college towns in the US (with a legendary music scene), UNC also offers free tuition for low-income students under the Carolina Covenant. This program ensures that full-time students who cannot afford college on their own (under federal guidelines) can receive a full scholarship. It’s a top-tier education, with no debt – plenty of reason to become a Tar Heel.
23. Vanderbilt University
It’s not the Ivy League, but Vanderbilt University, in Nashville TN, is as close as they come in the home of the Grand Old Opry. A highly selective, well-ranked research university, Vanderbilt was founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt, a Guilded Age multi-millionaire from the north, as a way to improve education in the south and bring north and south together after the Civil War. Their financial aid plan is a little complex, but the end result is simple – they’ll cover your projected need, whatever the cost, if they want you as a student. So a middle- to low-income student will pay nothing.
24. Webb Institute
Want to build ships? That’s an unusually specific question, but it’s an unusually specific interest, and Webb Institute is an unusually specific college. Originally the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, Webb is a four-year college that grants bachelor of science degrees in naval architecture and marine engineering – and that’s it. But if you want to do that, you can’t really find a better price than free: all students who are accepted get full tuition (but you have to pay for books and fees). Plus, Webb has a nearly 100% job placement rate. Not bad at all, for free.
25. Yale University
Another Ivy League university, another surprisingly great deal: if you can get in, and your family makes less that $65,000 a year, you go to Yale for free. Absolutely free. That’s a great price for an education that could make you CEO of a major corporation, senator, Vice President, or President. Although you may not get in the Skull and Bones (the secret society that launched many high-profile, powerful careers), you’ll have a Yale degree on your wall, which has to be worth what you paid. Can’t get a better return on investment than a free degree from Yale.