Students at Berea College, where work can cover tuition costs.
CHRIS RADCLIFFE—Courtesy of Berea College
By Kim Clark
Updated: November 2, 2016 5:46 PM ET | Originally published: November 6, 2015

Everyone knows college can be expensive today. But did you know that it can sometimes be free? If you and your family really don’t have a spare penny for school, there are still seven paths to free college—though many of them require lots of work and sacrifice.

(1) Attend your local community college. If you can continue living rent-free at home, there are a growing number of options of getting free tuition at community college. Many states and cities now offer free community college. This map shows all the current free programs.

If you don’t live in a free college area, the federal government will probably cover all or at least a good chunk of your community college tuition, which typically averages about $3,500 a year. Families earning up to $180,000 can also get as much as $2,500 off their tax bill by claiming the American Opportunity Tax Credit. Students from families earning less than about $50,000 have a good shot at qualifying for a federal Pell grant of up to $5,815.

In addition, good students should ask about honors college options, since those often come with large scholarships. One example: the full-tuition scholarship for good students at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Once you’ve finished your first two years, you can apply for transfer scholarships to four-year schools.

Students should also apply to their local public four-year university, since many provide low-income students with either a free ride or at least enough aid to cover the tuition portion. Among those that promise to cover tuition are the University of Washington, the Camden campus of Rutgers, and all of the campuses of the Universities of California.

(2) Go to work for a generous company. Most large employers have tuition reimbursement policies, capped at about $5,000 a year. But a few employers, such as accounting giant EY, offer unlimited tuition.

(3) Join the military. If you’re ready to serve your country, there are several paths to free college. The four military academies are not only free but will pay you a stipend while you study. The National Guard and ROTC also offer programs that cover tuition and pay small stipends. Alternatively, you can enlist and serve three years of active duty to earn veteran’s benefits that will cover in-state tuition at just about any public college. In addition, many soldiers can get a jump on their college career by earning academic credit for their military training. The Air Force, for example, has its own accredited community college, and it awards college credit for much of its training.

(4) Check out “work colleges.” There are seven so-called work colleges that allow students to trade work for tuition. At least two–Berea and College of the Ozarks–provide enough scholarships and work opportunities for students to fully cover their tuition, though you may have to work extra to fund your living costs.

(5) Aim for the top. A few elite specialized schools, such as the Curtis Institute of Music and the Webb Institute, a marine engineering school, offer free tuition. And many colleges provide a full-tuition scholarships to a few top students each year. The University of Alabama, for example, offers full tuition scholarships to a handful of students with perfect or near-perfect test scores. Additionally, high-performing students from families earning less than $60,000 or so generally get a full ride at about 60 of the nation’s most selective colleges, including the Ivies, Amherst, Stanford, and Vanderbilt. A few very selective public colleges also offer very generous aid to low-income students, especially those who live in-state, including the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. Be realistic, though. These schools’ generosity is a key reason they get swamped with applications. So they generally admit only top students.

Related: How to Find a College You Can Truly Afford

(6) Try for large outside scholarships. While most private scholarships–those provided by companies or foundations–fund only a portion of typical college costs, a few arrange for students to get full rides. You’ll have the best odds of winning the smaller, local scholarships, but if you’re a good student with strong extracurricular activities, it pays to try for the high-value scholarships, advises Kristina Ellis, author of Confessions of a Scholarship Winner, who paid her way through Vanderbilt with scholarships, including prestigious awards from the Coca-Cola and Gates foundations. She also suggests that strong students from disadvantaged backgrounds consider applying to the Posse Foundation and Questbridge, both of which help winning students get full scholarships to top colleges.

(7) Go online. If you just want to learn, and don’t care about earning official credits, there are thousands of free online courses available through websites and apps such as ItunesU and YouTube, (For example, here is Yale’s YouTube page). Additionally, you can take free Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) through organizations such as Coursera, EdX, Future Learn, Canvas Network, and Saylor Academy. Additional free courses may be available from individual schools. Stanford offers dozens of free online courses, for example. Many local libraries also offer free courses. Some of these programs will allow you to earn credit if you pay for proctored final exams, which typically run from $25 to $100 apiece.

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