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While it may not be completely free, there are options to lower the price tag for college and to reduce student loan debt. Here’s how to lower your costs or potentially go to college for free:

Scholarships: Scholarships are free money that you don’t have to pay back. So, apply for as many scholarships as you can. While they’re generally tax-free when used for tuition, textbooks, housing, and other costs, scholarships can be taxable. And if you win a scholarship, you may have to appeal to your school that it doesn’t reduce your need-based financial aid. Find scholarships by:

  • Searching the U.S. Department of Labor’s free search tool and other free scholarship search sites
  • Sallie Mae’s free scholarship search
  • Asking your high school counselor
  • Contacting the financial aid office at your college
  • Professional organizations, especially related to your major
  • Your employer
  • Your parent’s employer
  • Community organizations
  • Local businesses

Keep in mind a scholarship may be taken away if you don’t meet the specific requirements, such as maintaining a certain grade point average. Use our College Savings Planning Calculator to help create a plan for saving for college.

Grants: Grants are like scholarships because they are free money you don’t have to repay. Grants are usually need-based, while scholarships can be for anyone. The best way to find grants is to submit the FAFSA before the deadline since grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Some grants may be required to be repaid if you don’t meet the grant’s obligations.

Employer Tuition Assistance: There are hundreds of companies that offer tuition assistance to employees. Your employer can literally pay for your college, or reimburse you for it. A company may have stipulations, such as you need to agree to work for the company for a certain amount of time or attend a specific school. There are even companies that offer tuition assistance to the family of an employee, so if your parents work for a company that offers it, you may be able to get free tuition.

College Employment: Many colleges offer free or discounted tuition to employees who work at the college. They may even extend that same benefit to the children of employees.

Work Colleges: work college is an institution that offers free tuition or other types of financial assistance to students in exchange for participating in a work program.

Colleges with Free Tuition: There are over 35 U.S. colleges that offer free tuition for students. Keep in mind that these colleges come with requirements. While tuition may be free, that may not include room and board and supplies. There are several states that offer free tuition programs, too.

Waivers: Some colleges offer tuition waivers to need-based students. Children of college faculty and staff may qualify for a tuition waiver. The best chances for receiving a tuition waiver are to fill out the FAFSA and to contact your college’s financial aid department to inquire.

Crowdfund: You can consider crowdfunding to see assistance with paying for college. With crowdfunding, you can set up a page on GoFundMe or another platform, and ask people to help you pay for college.

Apprentice Programs: If you don’t want to go to a traditional four-year college, an apprenticeship prepares workers for a specific field. Most offer a paycheck while you learn on the job.

Go to College for Less: 

  • High school students can enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which could count as college credits.
  • Attend a community college first, but be sure your credits transfer. There are areas where community college is free.
  • Consider attending where your parents went to college if the school offers a legacy benefit.
  • Choose an affordable school, such as an in-state public school.
  • Live at home or choose an inexpensive place to live.
  • Become a Resident Assistant (RA) or Teaching Assistant (TA), which often comes with free or discounted housing.
  • Stay on track with graduation requirements. Plan a path from enrollment to graduation. And pass your classes.
  • Some colleges offer cheaper rates during the summer. Consider taking classes then, as well.
  • Borrow textbooks from the library for free or buy them used.

If you do need to borrow student loans, borrow responsibly. Remember – you need to pay back every dollar you borrow plus interest. Borrow federal student loans first. Federal loans are often a lower interest rate and come with many benefits, including the ability to make payments based on your income, potential for loan forgiveness and subsidized loans and options to pause payments if you lose your job.

Once you exhaust federal loans, if you do need to borrow private loans, shop around to find the best lender for you.

Here’s the bottom line: keep costs low and borrow as little as possible.


ScholarShare 529, California’s college savings plan, publishes the College Countdown website and articles to provide resources and to ease the minds of parents preparing to send their kids to college. Visit ScholarShare 529.