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Paying for college can be an expensive proposition. For the academic year 2021–2022, average in-state tuition at four-year public institutions was $10,740, according to The College Board. The average out-of-state tuition costs a little more than $27,500, and private schools averaged a sticker price of just above $38,000 for tuition. And that doesn’t even include other costs associated with attending college, such as room and board.

So, how can you reduce your cost to attend school? Well, one way is to apply for free college aid. Many students overlook several sources of free college aid, much to their detriment. Here’s what you should know.

Key Takeaways

  • Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the most overlooked ways to get free college aid in the form of Pell Grants. Nearly $3.75 billion in Pell Grants went unclaimed in 2021.
  • The are several schools in the U.S. with programs that can completely cover the cost of tuition, though these may necessitate living in a specific area as well as agreeing to other stipulations in order to be eligible.
  • Many states offer programs that can partially or completely cover the cost of a higher education. However, these programs may be limited based on an applicant’s income or merit as well as being restricted to community college attendees.

Three Overlooked Sources of Free College Aid

As parents and prospective students begin to think about applying for scholarships, what they often don’t realize is that they may already qualify for free college aid, depending on where they live and their financial situation. Here are three sources of aid you might be missing out on.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

One of the biggest overlooked sources of free college aid comes from filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A report from the National College Attainment Network found that approximately $3.75 billion in Pell Grants went unclaimed by the high school class of 2021.

The FAFSA needs to be filled out once a year to re-qualify for the following year. Students are already missing out on the opportunity to get free aid from the government in the form of Pell Grants, and on top of that, many states and schools use information from the FAFSA to determine whether students are eligible for additional free college aid programs. By filling out the FAFSA, even if you can’t get enough free aid to fully cover the cost of a higher education, it could still reduce your need for federal student loans.

Colleges offering free tuition

While the FAFSA can be a source of college financial aid, you might not need the tuition help if you’re able to attend a school that pays for the education it’s providing you.

Some colleges have programs, such as Alice Lloyd College’s Appalachian Leaders Scholarship, designed to help attendees avoid the costs associated with higher education. As long as you live in the school’s service area and agree to any conditions of the program, your out-of-pocket tuition costs may be completely covered. Additional schools that offer free tuition include Berea College in Kentucky, the United States Air Force Academy (though you must commit to serve), as well as the University of New Hampshire.

In some cases, if you meet certain need-based requirements, you can even attend Ivy League schools for free. For example, for the 2022–2023 academic year, Harvard students from families making less than $75,000 per year will have their entire tuition covered. According to Harvard, about 20% of students don’t pay to attend.

State-sponsored free college aid

It’s not just colleges and universities offering access to free college aid, as your state government might also be an option.

In some states, like New Mexico and Oregon, there are programs that allow students to access free tuition without a lot of restrictions. There are some states, however, where a free education only applies to community colleges. Once you finish at the community college, you might have to transfer to another school to complete your education. Even with just two years of debt-free community schooling, you can still make a lot of progress without piling on debt.

Other states that offer free college aid, like New York, might have specific requirements for income or merit. Even so, checking with your state’s department of education can help you find out what programs are available to help cover some of your costs.

What Resources Exist to Help Pay for College?

Outside of an individual or their parents’ savings and income, some of the most common resources used to help pay for college include federal and private loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. Student loans are perhaps the most frequently used means of financing a higher education, though these will need be repaid.

How Do People Afford College Without Financial Aid?

Without any forms of financial aid (i.e., loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study programs) the main recourse left to most students would be paying out of pocket, whether that be from the student’s savings or contributions from members of their family. In this scenario, it would be wise to take advantage of any means to easing the financial burden, such as by taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school, attending a community college, and/or taking on a part-time job (and either switching to a full-time role or picking up additional part-time work during the summer) while enrolled.

Is Free College Actually Free?

Yes and no. “Free college” typically only refers to colleges that cover the cost of a student’s tuition, while the cost of room and board, school supplies, transportation, as well as other expenses are still their responsibility to pay.

The Bottom Line

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment continues to decline. One cause of this decline is due to rising college costs. Students from families with lower- and middle-incomes are seeing the largest decline in college attendance. Part of that, reports the National Center for Education Statistics, has to do with the fact that these students don’t believe college is affordable for them.

However, as a student, you might be surprised to learn that college is more affordable than you think. There are opportunities out there for free college aid, and taking advantage them—especially by filling out the FAFSA—can help make college more affordable.

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