What You Should Know About Tuition-Free Colleges

Tuition-Free College

The promise of free college tuition is a strong draw for college-capable low-income students. But, many free tuition programs come with caveats that cause them to fall short of the promise.

Let’s break down what you should know about tuition-free colleges, along with a list of some U.S. colleges that are tuition-free. We also share some foreign colleges that also have free tuition programs that may be of interest.

You might also want to dive in to our guide on How To Pay For College.

Limitations On Free Tuition Programs

Although free tuition programs make college more affordable, there are several limitations that families should be aware of.

  • Free tuition does not mean free college. Most free tuition programs cover the cost of tuition and fees but not room and board, books and supplies, or other college costs. Some do not cover fees, which can be significant at some colleges. At a community college, the textbooks can be a significant portion of college costs.
  • Many free-tuition programs are last-dollar, meaning that all other sources of financial aid must be applied to tuition first before the free-tuition program covers the remaining tuition costs. This may prevent a student from using the Federal Pell Grant and state grants to cover living expenses and other college costs.
  • The student may need to be a resident of a particular city or state. The student may need to have attended and graduated from particular public schools in the city. The student may have to agree to continuing living in the city or state for a number of years after college graduation.
  • Some free-tuition programs require the student to enroll in college immediately after graduation from high school.
  • Many free-tuition programs require the students to enroll in college full-time. The student may also be required to reside on campus.
  • Some free-tuition programs are limited to students with demonstrated financial need or to Pell Grant recipients.
  • Some free-tuition programs require all students to work a part-time job on campus. Others require the student to participate in community service during the academic year and summer.
  • Some free-tuition programs require the student to maintain at least a minimum GPA, such as a 2.0, 2.5 or 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.

Certain education tax benefits, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), Lifetime Learning Tax Credit (LLTC) and tax-free scholarships, are based on amounts spent on tuition, fees and course materials (e.g., textbooks, supplies and equipment). If tuition is paid for by a free-tuition program, it may reduce or eliminate eligibility for these tax breaks.

U.S. Tuition-Free Colleges

Federally-recognized work colleges require all students who live on campus to work as part of the college learning experience, regardless of financial need. Six of these colleges provide students with free tuition:

There are also several colleges that aren’t federally-recognized work colleges, but where students are required to work and receive free tuition:

Deep Springs College provides free room and board in addition to free tuition.

There are several trade schools which provide free tuition.

The U.S. military academies provide free tuition, room and board. The students are required to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces after graduation.

Related: Military And VA Education Benefits To Pay For College

In addition to these colleges, there are dozens of colleges with “no loans” financial aid policies that provide free tuition to low-income students. These colleges include Ivy League institutions, MIT and Stanford University.

Other colleges that provide free tuition to all or some of their students include:

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (NY) previously provided free tuition for over a century, but had to start charging tuition in 2012 due to financial challenges. The college is raising money to enable a return to free tuition in the future. 

Several medical schools provide free tuition to all students, regardless of financial need. These include Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente and New York University. Other medical schools provide free tuition based on financial need. These colleges include Columbia University, Cornell University and Washington University in St. Louis. UCLA provides free tuition based on academic merit.

Some community colleges do not charge tuition. For example, the California College Promise Program, previously known as the BOG Fee Waiver, provides free tuition at community colleges in the state. Students whose family income is less than about 150% of the poverty line are eligible for the tuition and fee waiver.

At other community colleges, the combination of federal and state grants may be enough to cover the cost of tuition for some low-income students, such as students who are eligible for the maximum Federal Pell Grant.
Several states offer college promise programs that cover tuition at an in-state public college for students who graduate from a public high school. These programs include the New York Excelsior Scholarship, Oregon Promise, Rhode Island Promise and Tennessee Promise.

There are also hundreds of college promise programs offered by specific cities, such as the Kalamazoo Promise, Seattle Promise and Pittsburgh Promise. Most are last-dollar financial aid programs, where all other sources of financial aid are assumed to be applied to tuition before the remaining tuition is covered by the promise program. Full tuition is often limited to students who attended a public elementary and secondary school for 12 years, not just those who graduated from a public high school.

University of the People is an accredited online college that does not charge tuition, although it does charge course assessment fees.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition advocates in favor of free public college tuition programs.

Which Foreign Colleges Have Free Tuition?

Two dozen countries provide free public college tuition for their citizens. A few also provide free tuition to international students.

The following countries provide free tuition to international students, including U.S. students. However, some of these colleges teach classes in the local language, not English.

  • Brazil (Classes taught in Portuguese)
  • Czech Republic (Classes taught in the Czech language)
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Greece (Classes taught in Greek)
  • Iceland
  • Luxembourg
  • Norway
  • Panama

Free tuition does not include living expenses. In some of these countries, such as Norway, living expenses are high. (U.S. federal student aid can be used at about 400 foreign universities to pay for housing, meals and other college costs, but the funding is limited to federal student loans, not grants. 529 college savings plans can be used to pay for living expenses at these colleges abroad, but not transportation.)

Other countries, such as France, Slovenia and Sweden, are open to European Union (EU) citizens but not U.S. students.

A dozen countries provide free tuition only to their own citizens. These countries include Argentina, Austria, Denmark, Egypt, Kenya, Malaysia, Morocco, Poland, Scotland, Spain, Turkey and Uruguay.

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