How to Go to College for Free

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It's no secret that college is expensive. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who received a full scholarship to your dream school or had an extremely well-funded 529 plan, then you can expect to pay an estimated $23,890 per year for a four-year, public college and $32,410 for a four-year, private school, according to information from the College Board. That means a four-year degree at a public school will cost you $95,560, while a private university will set you back approximately $129,640.

And that’s assuming you graduate in four years and not taking into account tuition increases or inflation.

Considering these numbers, it’s no surprise that many incoming freshmen are considering other options. And while scholarships, federal aid, and student loans can be useful tools to pay for college, all have their limitations and drawbacks.

That’s where free college comes in. Below, we round up the best free colleges, explaining how they’re funded, what they offer, and other need-to-know details, like enrollment, top majors, and student-to-professor ratios.

The Top Free Colleges

Ranked 68th in the 2018 edition of Best Colleges is National Liberal Arts Colleges and boasting a bucolic 140-acre campus in Kentucky and a solid 11:1 faculty to student ratio, Berea College ranks consistently among the top rankings of free colleges.

Enrollment is 1,665 and popular majors include business, management, marketing, education, English, and Visual and Performing Arts.

All students are required to work a minimum of 10 hours weekly in approved jobs on campus. Another bonus? Every admitted student receives a free laptop.

The College of the Ozarks (also called Hard Work U) is another perennially-top-ranked free college. Located in Point Lookout, Missouri, it has a faculty-student ratio of 14:1 and all students are required to work a minimum of 15 hours on campus.

This, combined with scholarships and grants, cover 100 percent of tuition. There are more than 40 majors to choose from, and enrollment is 1,512.

However, C of O is a private, Christian school and prohibits alcohol and tobacco, so keep that in mind when making your decision.

Musically-inclined? Then you’re in luck. Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pa. is another top-ranked free college. Offering majors ranging from to piano to vocal studies to conducting, Curtis Institute of Music also has an impressive 2:1 faculty to student ratio. Enrollment is also small, at 165. The drawback? The acceptance rate is only 4 percent, so competition is tough.

Other top free colleges include Alice Lloyd College, Cooper Union, CUNY Macaulay Honors College, the United States Air Force Academy, and Deep Springs College, located on a working cattle ranch.

So How Are They Funded?

Some free colleges, like Deep Springs, rely on endowments and annual gifts to keep the lights on–and the tuition free. Berea College has a similar setup, relying on its endowment to fund 75 percent of the school’s education and general operating budget, as well as donor gifts.

College of the Ozarks also has an impressive $416 million endowment and has been called “a model for higher ed” for its student-work study programs and the fact that 92 percent of students graduate debt-free.

However, as many experts have stated, when it comes to instating a universal free college program, someone’s going to have to pay for it, whether it’s the federal government, state government, or all three.

So where can you find free colleges? There are many resources to find top free colleges, from roundups on U.S. News, BestColleges.org, and BestColleges.com. In many cases, the application process works similarly to that of a traditional college. Except, of course, that admission to some free colleges is more competitive.

Is This Part of a Larger Trend?

In a word, yes. Many states have enacted measures to make free college a reality, funded mostly by taxes, but in some cases, by the state’s lottery, i.e. Tennessee. Some schools have started to offer free tuition programs for low-income students, which essentially cover a student’s tuition and fees, but not the full cost of attending.

Experts have also argued that free college is a necessity to producing a good workforce, an idea that’s been touted since President Barack Obama was in office and throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign trail.

Either way, it’s an idea we can get on board with. After all, can you imagine what that extra $120,000 would do in your 401(k)?