How ‘Free College Tuition’ Can Still Cost You Thousands per Year

Free tuition doesn't cover these college expenses.

The cost of tuition and fees at most public and private colleges has increased once again for the 2018-2019 school year, according to data from U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey. Cost-reduction efforts, such as grants and tax benefits, do little to defray the continually increasing prices of a college education.

But some schools are trying to change things for the better. Rice University just announced in Sept. 2018 a new program that would award full-tuition scholarships to students from families with an annual income of $130,000 or less. Similarly, Columbia Medical School announced in late 2017 that it had received a $250 million gift to fund full-tuition scholarships for those students with the greatest need.

Although free college tuition isn’t the norm, opportunities to greatly reduce the cost of higher-level education for students do exist. And they’re needed — even with tuition assistance, other expenses can make paying for an education difficult.

Click to see the best college in every state that costs under $20,000 a year.

College Fees and Expenses You’ll Rack Up in Addition to Tuition 

Even when you’re attending a tuition-free college, that doesn’t mean you won’t owe anything: You still have to budget for other school fees and expenses. Here are some of the college costs you can expect.

Application and Testing Fees: $10 to $100

Due to the review process of thousands of applications academic institutions receive each year, an application fee of $100 or less is typical. Fee waivers are not unheard of, however. Testing fees from $10 to $100 might also be required.

Find Out: Do You Make Enough to Put Your Kid Through College?

Orientation Fees: $25 to $100

College freshmen are often required to attend an orientation session, which usually includes an attendance fee of $25 to $100. Higher fees might occur depending on the institution.

Time: Up to 20 Hours per Week ‘Unpaid’

Students who are required to commit to work or service programs in exchange for free tuition typically won’t have time to work at a traditional paying job. Work-study programs can require as much as 20 hours of commitment per week. It can be as important to budget this time as it is to budget your other expenses when weighing all of the costs of attending a school.

Books: From $100 Each

College textbooks can cost $100 or more, and some courses require multiple texts. Opting for used textbooks or sharing with other students can help save money. You’ll also need to budget for other school supplies as well.

Lab and Technology Fees: $100 to $800

Lab fees to cover the cost of supplies can go as high as $800. Schools offering free online college degrees often charge fees per course or term, which can range from $100 to $300.

Read: 3 Family Members, 3 Degrees, Each in 3 Years — Here’s How We Did It

Transportation Fees: $10 to $40

Student transportation fees that cover bus or transit passes can range from under $10 to as much as $40.

Facility and Campus Fees: Varies

To assist with the upkeep of school grounds and facilities, schools often collect facility and campus fees. Amounts vary by institution.

Housing and Meal Plan Fees: $1,000 to Over $10,000

Students who live on campus can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to more than $10,000 to cover the cost of housing expenses and meal plans. If you live off campus, you might save by splitting expenses with roommates, but in some college towns, living off campus can be cost-prohibitive.

Check Out: Colleges With the Lowest Student Debt

Graduation Fees: Varies

Facility costs, graduation attire and faculty pay comprise graduation fees, which can vary based on degree level or institution. For example, students who earned online college degrees might pay less than $100.

Colleges That Offer Free Tuition

To reduce the debt load on parents and students, many colleges offer qualifying students free tuition. Hurdles to obtaining free tuition include excessive family income levels, your permanent residence location and whether you meet academic achievement thresholds. Here are some categories and examples of colleges that offer free tuition.

Private Colleges With Free Tuition

Admission to private colleges with free tuition is often based on academic, residential and income requirements. These private colleges offer free tuition:

  • Barclay College
  • Berea College
  • Cornell University
  • Duke University
  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University

Check Out: The Best Banks for College Students

Free College Tuition at Public Universities

Free tuition at public universities isn’t as widely available, but there are a few options. Admission requirements take into account income levels, residency status and academic achievement factors. Here are the public universities offering free tuition:

  • Arizona State University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Military Schools With Free Tuition

Admission requirements to military school might include passing medical exams or earning an admission nomination from a U.S. representative, senator or the U.S. vice president. Additionally, military schools might require applicants to agree to a post-graduation commitment of military service. These military schools offer tuition-free education:

  • U.S. Air Force Academy
  • U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
  • U.S. Military Academy (West Point)
  • U.S. Naval Academy

Free-Tuition Online Colleges

Online colleges offering free tuition for entire degree programs are few and far between. Free online courses are a much more popular offering, but the catch is that you can’t receive credit for them. Here are a couple of universities that offer free-tuition degree programs:

  • University of the People
  • World Education University

Click to keep reading about how college pays off over time.

More on Education and Saving Money