More Debt-Free College Strategies

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Debt-Free SwitchHere are more debt-free college strategies. In my last two posts, Debt-Free College Strategies – These Worked for Us and Debt-Free College Strategies #2 – These Also Worked for Us, I covered the debt-free college strategies we used with our 3 girls. There are other debt-free college strategies that weren’t applicable to us or were just things my girls didn’t take advantage of or weren’t interested in. I will cover these in this post, starting with need-based aid strategies.

Maximize Your Eligibility for Need-Based Aid

I could generalize and say that typically families making $150,000 or more per year don’t qualify for need-based aid, but it will depend on many other factors. These factors include total number of dependents, number of kids in college at the same time, the type of colleges your student is looking at, housing debt, and more, depending on the way the specific colleges are calculating need. Are they using just FAFSA, the CSS Profile, Consensus Methodology, or their own brand of a combination of factors?

There are cases where even higher income families can take steps to maximize need-based aid eligibility. You can find some articles about this online, but my best advice is to engage the help of a financial professional who specializes in paying for college.

Definitely, if you fall below $150,000 or so in yearly family income (again there are other factors that may raise or lower this threshold), there are ways to maximize need-based aid eligibility.

A big piece of this is going to be selecting the right schools. You will need to explore different types of colleges and run their net price calculators to get an early estimate of what you would qualify for. I talk about this in depth in the post, Will We Qualify for Need-Based Financial Aid?

To maximize your likelihood of qualifying for need-based aid in general, there are a few things you can plan ahead including reducing student-owned assets, minimizing your cash on hand, maximizing retirement contributions to minimize adjusted net income, paying down debt vs putting money in savings, and more. Again, it’s best to consult a financial professional to determine the best course of action for your situation.

Select A College That Meets 100% of Need

When you are looking to maximize need-based aid eligibility, it helps to look at colleges that pledge to meet 100% of financial need. Currently, there are 66 colleges that claim to meet 100% of financial need for incoming freshmen.

This list of colleges have two big thing in common. First, they are all very difficult to get admitted to. Second, other than 3 exceptions out of 66, the yearly tuition at these schools is over $45,000. Most are over $50,000. If your student is lucky enough to get admitted, you will have a greater chance of getting need-based aid at these schools than at most others.

Here’s the current list:

Amherst College
Barnard College
Bates College
Bowdoin College
Brown University
Bryn Mawr College
California Institute of Technology
Carleton College
Case Western Reserve University
Claremont McKenna College
Colby College
Colgate University
College of the Holy Cross
Colorado College
Connecticut College
Cornell University
Dartmouth College
Davidson College
Duke University
Emory University
Franklin and Marshall College
Georgetown University
Grinnell College
Hamilton College
Harvard University
Harvey Mudd College
Haverford College
Kenyon College
Lafayette College
Macalester College
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Middlebury College
Mount Holyoke College
Northeastern University
Northwestern University
Oberlin College
Occidental College
Pitzer College
Pomona College
Princeton University
Reed College
Rice University
Scripps College
Skidmore College
Smith College
St Olaf College
Stanford University
Swarthmore College
Trinity College
Tufts University
Union College
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Notre Dame
University of Pennsylvania
University of Richmond
University of Southern California
University of Virginia
Vanderbilt University
Vassar College
Wake Forest University
Washington and Lee University
Washington University in St Louis
Wellesley College
Wesleyan University
Williams College
Yale University

Community College Bridge Programs

One big way to save money on a college education is to attend community college for the first two years. A major argument against starting at community college has been that a student who starts at community college is less likely to graduate with a 4-year degree than a student who starts at a 4-year college. Community college bridge programs give students a greater likelihood of graduating with a 4-year degree because all community college credits transfer into a 4-year program. In addition, many of these bridge programs offer guaranteed admission to a 4-year program.

I wrote much more about community college bridge programs in the post, Community Colleges and Guaranteed Transfer Programs.

Attend a “Free Tuition” College

There are essentially three types of “free tuition” colleges – service academies, work colleges and performance colleges. I will cover work colleges in the next section below, as not all work colleges offer free tuition.

There are 5 U.S. service academies:

  • US Naval Academy
  • US Air Force Academy
  • US Military Academy (West Point – Army)
  • US Coast Guard Academy
  • US Merchant Marine Academy

All have admission rates of 15% or lower, but for those fortunate enough to get in, they receive a full ride (tuition plus room and board). In exchange for the free college education, there is a service obligation of at least 5 years required after college.

Other schools, that I term “performance colleges”, offer free tuition related to a student’s performance or abilities. The schools in this category include the following:

  • Curtis Institute of Music
  • Webb Institute  (Engineering)
  • Macaulay Honors College

You can read more about these schools in my post, Free Tuition Colleges and Work Colleges.

Attend a Work College

As referenced above, there are free tuition work colleges, but not all work colleges offer free tuition.

One thing to note about work colleges is that they are overwhelmingly Christian-focused with bible-based ideas factoring largely in all areas of campus life. Therefore, they only tend to be a good fit for a certain type of student and family.

There are 8 work colleges in the Work College Consortium. Three of these cover full tuition:

  • Alice Lloyd College – This Appalachian school offers free tuition to students within a defined geographic area. In exchange, students work 10-20 hours per week.
  • Berea College – Berea awards 4-year full tuition scholarships to all students accepted. It focuses on accepting students who are not otherwise able to afford college.
  • University of the Ozarks – The full cost of tuition through work, scholarships and grants provided directly by the school.

Th other 5 consortium members cover a portion of tuition through work. Three of these are not primarily faith-based: Blackburn College in IL, Warren Wilson College in NC, and Sterling College in VT.

There are also three additional work colleges that are not part of the consortium:

  • Barclay College – A private Christian college in Kansas offering full-tuition scholarships to all students who live on campus. The school is very theology focused, with a small number of majors offered. It is considered a theological college.
  • Deep Springs College – A two-year liberal arts college for men in California, it offers a full ride for all students in exchange for working on the school’s cattle ranch and alfalfa farm.
  • Ecclesia College – This Christian college in Arkansas offers a bible-based education and a work-learning program to apply money earned working on campus to the cost of tuition. This school does not cover full tuition through the work program.

Attend an Out-of-State Public University Offering a Tuition Exchange

There are 4 regional tuition exchanges in the U.S. where students living within the region will receive discounted out-of-state tuition for public universities in the region. Use the links below to find out more about each of these:

Midwest Student Exchange Program

New England Regional Student Program

Academic Common Market (South)

Western Undergraduate Exchange

Additionally, many states have specific reciprocity agreements with other states. A good example is Minnesota. The University of Minnesota offers the in-state tuition rate to students from North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Manitoba, Canada.

There can also be some smaller reciprocity arrangements. In my state of Illinois, we participate in the Midwest Student Exchange Program, but that only covers specific colleges. In addition, we participate in University of Wisconsin – Platteville’s Tri-State Initiative (along with Iowa) that brings out-of-state tuition down to what many of our Illinois in-state schools charge. Illinois & Iowa residents pay 75% more than in-state students at this school while students from most other states pay more than double.

Attend a Public University Offering an Out-of-State Tuition Waiver

Some public colleges offer out-of-state tuition waivers to out-of-state students who don’t qualify for tuition exchanges. These can either fully waiver the out-of-state portion of the tuition cost, bringing the student’s tuition cost equal to that for in-state students, or partially waiver the out-of-state portion.

These are usually merit-based scholarships with some eligibility criteria attached. In my database, there are currently 90 scholarships that include a full or partial waiver of out-of-state tuition.

Attend College Outside the U.S.

While it isn’t true that all countries offer U.S. students cheaper tuition than U.S. colleges, there are a number of countries where this is true. I talk about the top 12 countries for cheaper college options in the post, College Outside the U.S. – Is It Cheaper?

In that post, I also talk about other things to consider when thinking about college outside the U.S. and I provide links to helpful resources.

Become a Resident Assistant (RA)

Another great way for your student to save a lot of money is to become a Resident Assistant (RA). While this can be a pretty demanding job, it usually results in free room and board. Given that room and board tends to average $10,000 – $12,000 per school year, this is a much greater savings than what your student could make during a school year at another type of part-time job on or off campus.

Not every student is well-suited for an RA position, so make sure your student understands the responsibilities and the time commitment involved before applying.


In this post, I talked about nine more debt-free college strategies that may be right for your family. Hopefully, between my three posts on debt-free college strategies, you can find a combination of strategies that will work for your student both while selecting a college and while attending college.