Attending college is often associated with greater earning power, better job options, and a clearer path to a fulfilling career. There’s no denying that the job market isn’t as perfect as it is for some college graduates, but it is even more difficult for those without a degree.
Promising as it may be, it’s no secret that attending college is also synonymous with financial burden to most Americans, particularly in recent years. The median college cost in-state university college is $9,410. Private school tuition fees average $32,410. Student loan debt by about some 4.2 million borrowers in the United States has ballooned to a whopping $1.48 trillion, surpassing the credit card debt in America by roughly $600 billion. In fact, $2,858 in student debt is accrued every second!
These harsh financial realities of attending and completing higher education can make any college-bound student rethink their college options. No one wants to be trapped knee-high debt and still be paying decades after they’ve completed their degree.
Thankfully, there is a way to pursue your college dream tuition-free. We list service academies and colleges with that let you work for your education through their accredited Work Programs in the United States so you don’t have to worry about paying tuition or taking out a student loan.
United States Service Academies
Academic institutions that educate and train the air force, the military, the coast guard, the marines, and the navy are service academies. Except for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, all of them fully fund students’ tuition and other expenses. This is good news for students who pay nothing for their education and residence as they fulfill their passion to serve the country.
In return, students are asked to commit that, upon graduation as Bachelor of Science degree holders, they will serve the minimum term of duty. These service commitments are required upon admission.
It is worth mentioning that, while attending U.S. service academies sound like a good option for college-bound students who seek free education, the process for admission is an extensive and highly competitive process. These schools are ranked as some of the most selective colleges and universities in the country with very low acceptance rates averaging between 8% and 17% only!
United States Air Force Academy (USAFA)
The United States Air Force Academy is located north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County, Colorado. With over 4,000 students, this military academy for officer cadets of the U.S. Air Force maintains a rigorous academic program “that balances Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) with the arts and humanities.” There are 27 majors and four minors offered to develop cadets as leaders, officers, and scholars of character fit to serve the Air Force and the country.
Cadets at the Academy have fully paid tuition; they don’t have to worry about student loans. In addition, they enjoy the cost-free room and board and medical care, interest-free loans, low-cost insurance programs, and a monthly stipend. In exchange, they are asked to commit to serving as an officer in the Air Force for a length of time that is determined based on their career path.
It is not a matter of affording the tuition or finding a scholarship or grant. An Academy education is valued at more than $416,000, yet we offer it at no cost to our cadets. All that is required in return is your commitment to serve as an officer in the Air Force.
Unlike most other college graduates, graduates of the Academy are guaranteed professions with attractive and competitive pay. As officers in the U.S. Air Force, they become pilots, combat systems officers, contracting officers, public affairs officers, intelligence officers, doctors, engineers, or join the Special Forces.
United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA)
Admission to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point is a lifelong honor. Located north of New York City in Hudson Valley, USMA West Point is home to roughly 4.000 promising young individuals making up the Corps of Cadets. West Point has an integrated and complementary academic, military, and physical development programs that “balance the physical sciences and engineering with the humanities and social sciences”.
West Point cadets are offered 42 majors, allowing cadets to focus on the disciplines of their choice. The student-faculty ratio is 8 to 1. In each class, there are about 12 to 18 cadets. About 75% of the members of the West Point faculty are military personnel. Of these, 76% have completed graduate work, 30% possess doctoral qualifications, and all of them are master’s degrees holders.
At USMA West Point, each student’s four-year education—valued in excess of $225,000—is fully funded. In return, a cadet must fulfill the commitment to “serve at least five years of active duty and three years in a Reserve Component, a total of eight years” after graduation.
Admission to USMA West Point is open to all students. Minorities represent about 15% to 20% of the West Point Corps of Cadets.
U.S. Coast Guard Army (USCGA)
Elite education best describes the four years of college at the United States Coast Guard Academy. Future Coast Guard officers attending the Academy in New London, Connecticut adhere to strict requirements and undergo rigorous training to become excellent in character, skills, and commitment.
Academic majors at US Coast Guard Academy include Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Government, Management, Marine and Environmental Science, Mechanical Engineering, Naval Architecture, and Marine Engineering, and Operations Research and Computer Analysis. Interdisciplinary Studies and Coast Guard Graduate Programs are also offered.
Individuals who are fully committed to becoming U.S. Coast Guard officers attend the Academy free of charge. Each student’s tuition, valued at more than $280,000, is fully paid for by the government. This means zero student debt and savings for cadets who are also paid a salary while attending the Academy.
Upon graduation, U.S. Coast Guard graduates should serve for five years as a commissioned Coast Guard officer. This commitment is every graduate’s stepping stone to a fulfilling, lifelong leadership career. In fact, 85% of graduates serve the country beyond the five-year commitment.
“Built on a heritage of lifesaving, we the U.S. Coast Guard protect those on the sea, we protect the nation against threats delivered by sea, and we protect the sea itself.”
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA)
One of the five United States service academies, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is in Kings Point, New York. It offers a four-year program focuses on a rigorous and regimental academic program. As a result, Kings Point students, also called midshipmen, obtain a combination of skills with a Bachelor of Science degree, a U.S. Coast Guard license, and an officer’s commission in the U.S. Armed Forces.
As students of a Federal Academy, midshipmen pay zero tuition. Board and room at the Academy are also free. However, the Federal Government does not cover some of the expenses related to attendance at the Academy. Unlike students in other Federal Service Academies, midshipmen do not receive a monthly salary while in residence; they receive stipend during their Sea Term.
Midshipmen need to pay certain fees at the start of each academic year, categorized under “midshipmen fee” and “unbilled expenses”. To defray these costs, all USMMA students, regardless of income level, are participants to the Federal Student Aid (FSA) program.
Upon graduation, midshipmen fulfill their service obligation. They can opt to work five years in the U.S. maritime industry with eight years of service as an officer in the Armed Forces, or spend five years in active duty in the Armed Forces.
United States Naval Academy (USNA)
Undergraduates at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland are trained to become professional officers in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Also called midshipmen, students at the Naval Academy are immersed in programs that combine academic, military and physical development. They can earn Bachelor of Science degrees in 26 majors and attend classes with 8:1 student-teacher ratio. Midshipmen are also commission as ensigns in the Navy or second lieutenants in the Marine Corps.
Students attend the Naval Academy on a full scholarship. This means 100% of the tuition of each midshipman is paid for by the Navy, as well as the room, board, dental care, and medical costs. All midshipmen also receive $1,087.80 each month to cover for services, as well as $100 in cash with yearly increase. Unlike other university graduates that struggle with the job market, Naval Academy graduates are guaranteed employment.
To assist midshipmen with savings, potential investments, loans, tax returns, and other financial matters, the Naval Academy conducts several seminars. There is also individual financial counseling offered by the financial advisor, a Navy Supply Corps officer.
The Navy expects that in return for these benefits in an elite Federal Academy, Naval Academy graduates fulfill their pledge to serve in the Navy or Marine Corps for at least five years.
Other Colleges Offering Tuition-free Student Work Programs
Aside from U.S. service academies offering students the option to work for their tuition, there are also regular colleges that run student work programs. But as with federally funded academies, these colleges can be very competitive in terms of admission requirements.
College of the Ozarks
College of the Ozarks is a Christian liberal arts college that offers numerous majors representing anywhere between 7 and 12 courses or areas of concentration that may be completed from 8 to 10 semesters.
Full-time students at College of the Ozarks, however, have the option to participate in the Work Education Program through which the institution helps them obtain higher education practically for free—as long as they work for it at any of the 80 diverse work stations in the Point Lookout, Missouri campus.
The ”Hard Work U” initiative requires students to complete 15 hours of work each week in the Computer Center, Child Development Center, Ralph Foster Museum, and the McDonald Clinic within the campus. Over time, students may be assigned work that is closely related to their career field of choice. C of O recognizes their students’ work experience as a critical part of learning. As such, their work performance translates to added credits and is calculated along with academic grades.
Students’ on-the-job experience at the College of the Ozarks Work Education Program can lead to their part-time employment with employers in nearby Hollister and Branson, Missouri. C of O seeks to cultivate the right values in each student so that ultimately, they get better chances at landing jobs with future employers when they graduate.
College of the Ozarks also encourages their students to apply for Federal and State Grants and the C of O Scholarship while participating in the Work Education Program. The college asserts that with these financial aid options, it is possible for their students to graduate debt-free.
Located South of Lexington in Berea, Kentucky, Berea College is a private liberal arts college with about 1,600 undergraduates studying Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in 28 fields. Student to teacher ratio is 11:1, which makes learning more individualized and focused. The cost of attendance at Berea College is up to $25,200, but students have the option to pay less—or pay zero altogether!
Berea College runs a Labor Program for students. Under this work-study initiative, Berea students accept and fulfill a first-year labor assignment from the College. In the next years, they will be assigned more of the positions that are available and take on higher work responsibilities. Consequently, they will be assigned a higher pay grade, which is calculated by the level of work performed as the position requires.
Under Berea College’s Labor Program Agreement, student workers are assigned at least 10 hours of work each week throughout their academic term. Work in excess of the 15-hours-per-week limit must be pre-approved and arranged with the supervisor, as provided in the overload approval process.
Berea College links the Labor Program with academic performance. The college aims to cultivate “a pattern of learning through work” that will be useful to students as they seek employment after graduation.
Berea also takes pride in being “the only one of America’s top colleges that makes a No Tuition Promise to every enrolled student” through its Tuition Promise Scholarship.
Alice Lloyd College
Located in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, Alice Lloyd College offers 17 Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees as well as 8 pre-professional programs. With a 17:1 student-to-teacher ratio, more than 96% of Alice Lloyd College graduates find employment within six months after graduation. The estimated college cost is $11,460.
Calling itself “a light unto the mountains”, Alice Lloyd College is a recognized work-study higher education institution. Since 1923, the college has been running its own financial aid program, offering full-time students work opportunities to pay for their education.
Under the Student Work Program, Alice Lloyd College freshmen perform on-campus jobs such as campus maintenance, food services, and janitorial duties. Over time, they may be allowed to choose their own job based on their skills and in relation to their major. The Work Program also allows students to offer services needed by surrounding communities.
The Alice Lloyd College Student Work Program aimed to provide students “not only an earning experience, but a learning experience as well.” Every student is required to adhere to the Student Work Program policy and perform the job designated to them by a team of supervisors.
Deep Springs College
Located in a cattle ranch in Deep Springs Valley in California, Deep Springs College is liberal arts college institution that is situated on a 155-acre alfalfa farm and cattle ranch.
Deep Springs College is a very small community that receives up to 250 applications each year and accepts only up to 30 students living in this Eastern California high desert. Each class is conducted as a seminar-style discussion with only 4 to 12 students. The college aims to have 14 students in each matriculating class. Since its founding in 1917, the school has been all male. In the summer of 2018, it admitted its first class of women students.
At Deep Springs College, there are no majors or concentrations. Instead, students explore topics in social sciences, the humanities, and natural sciences. The three required courses are Writing, Public Speaking, and a Summer Seminar. Students who have earned academic credits at Deep Springs College can proceed to obtaining an Associate’s of Arts or a Bachelor’s degree from other colleges.
Focused on labor and learning, all Deep Springs students receive a full scholarship valued at over $50,000 to cover tuition, room and board. In exchange, students live on campus and work at least 20 hours a week either on the farm or the ranch. They coordinate with the farm manager to irrigate, harvest and replant the fields, as well as operate, repair, and maintain irrigation equipment. Students may also perform a variety of ranch work, tending to cattle, horses, chickens, and pigs.
Curtis Institute of Music
Located in Philadelphia, Curtis Institute of Music’s academic programs consist of Diploma, Bachelor of Music, Post-Baccalaureate Diploma, Master of Music in Opera, and Professional Studies Certificate. It is known for its excellent and real-world training for students with a passion for professional music. The school sets an enrollment of roughly 175 students to maintain a full opera and symphony orchestra program. It has a renowned faculty consisting of actively performing musicians.
The estimated total cost of attendance at Curtis Institute of Music—including room and boarding, supplies, and miscellaneous expenses—is $19,102. The school maintains “a merit-based, full tuition, all-scholarship policy” to all undergraduate and graduate students. The scholarship is currently valued at $42,320 for undergraduate students and $52,548 for graduate students.
At Curtis, students are offered on-campus employment as supplemental financial assistance for living expenses. Next to Federal Direct or alternative loan, this is the second level of funding as a financial assistance package. Students may apply for this type of assistance, as long as their academic and artistic schedules allow. Curtis determines the appropriate work hours based on the student’s instrument and year of study.