Overlooked Sources of Free College Aid

Don’t leave free higher education funding on the table

Paying for college can be an expensive proposition. For the 2021–2022 academic year, average in-state tuition at four-year public institutions was $10,740, according to 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.
  • There are several schools in the United States with programs that can completely cover the cost of tuition—however, to be eligible, these may necessitate living in a specific area as well as agreeing to other stipulations.
  • 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 that you might be missing out on.

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 qualify again for the following year. Students are already missing out on the opportunity to get free aid from the U.S. 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 that 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 U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado (though you must commit to serve), and 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. Your state government also might 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. But 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 to 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 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 costs of room and board, school supplies, transportation, and 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 rising college costs. As such, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly a third of surveyed students didn’t believe their family could afford to send them to college.

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

Article Sources
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  1. College Board Research. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021,” Page 10.

  2. National College Attainment Network. “NCAN Report: $3.75 Billion in Pell Grants Goes Unclaimed for High School Class of 2021.”

  3. U.S. Air Force Academy. “Frequently Asked Questions.”

  4. Alice Lloyd College. “ALC’s Tuition Guarantee.”

  5. New Mexico Higher Education Department. “Tuition-Free College for New Mexicans.”

  6. Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education. “Complete the FAFSA® Form.”

  7. Berea College. “Types of Financial Aid and How the Berea Tuition Scholarship Is Covered.”

  8. University of New Hampshire. “Up to Four Years Tuition-Free.”

  9. Harvard College, Admissions & Financial Aid. “Affordability.”

  10. Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, Office of Student Access and Completion. “Oregon Promise.”

  11. New York State. “Tuition-Free Degree Program: The Excelsior Scholarship.”

  12. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Current Term Enrollment Estimates.”

  13. National Center for Education Statistics. “College Affordability Views and College Enrollment.”

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