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Tuition Free Online Colleges and Free Online Degree Programs

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You can make it without it, sure. But for a vast majority of Americans, getting to attend college is still synonymous with greater lifetime earnings, an opportunity for jobs, and a more enriching life. Simultaneously, no single type of spending has increased as quickly as higher education costs except health care expenses over the last 40 years. 

In fact, the cost of higher education has increased eight times as quickly as the average American earner’s wages since the early 1980’s. Yes — you read that correctly — 8x. 

And while that may seem like a totally unrealistic investment, the facts stand that higher education is still worth it in the vast majority of cases (even with the cost increase). 

Of course, here at OnlineCollegePlan we don’t believe that any future student should jump into a degree program without proper research. And with our years of experience in researching higher education topics we’ve learned a thing or two that may be of use about saving money on college. The cheapest online college may not be the best option, even if you need to save money. Research plenty of online college options before making a school choice.

In this guide we’ll show you some ways in which you can avoid the massive bill that hits so many college students, as well as ways to minimize future debt by identifying some of the most affordable online colleges. 

In this guide on free online degree programs we’ll walk through the following sections:

How Much Does College Really Cost? 

While tuition is likely the single largest expense many students pay throughout their college years, it’s not the only cost associated with going to school by a long shot. The cost of books and educational materials, moving wherever your school is located (if not online), living expenses, and fees can all add up. If you’re attending full-time and not working while in school, you’ll need to factor in the loss of current or potential income as well.

And while undergraduates of regionally accredited colleges and universities can often take out student loans for up to the full cost of living plus attendance, you may want to take a look at whether you want to spend that amount on a given higher education program first.

In fact, much as with America’s rising (and already risen) health care expenses, college pricing has one of the widest ranges of any other product type. What one pays on college can range from $0 to well over $50,000 a year depending on the type of school one attends, the financial aid one successfully applies for, future arrangements such as the studying of and working in public service roles, and the location one chooses to go to school in.

Just looking at averages, the following is how much school “costs” for an average student attending any of the following:

  • In-State Public University Tuition and Fees in North Dakota: $7,753
  • In-State Public University Tuition and Fees in Vermont: $30,858
  • In-State Public University Tuition and Fees Nationwide: $9,687
  • Average Private University Tuition Nationwide: $35,087
  • Full “Sticker Price” Tuition at Columbia University: $61,788
  • Average In-District Community College Tuition and Fees: $4,804

That’s quite a range! And while few students do end up paying the entire “sticker price” of an institution, it’s worth noting that a year at an average in-district community college program is around 1/12th of paying the full price at an Ivy League institution. 

What this shows us is that there are a variety of ways to lower the cost of college education, and one of the main ways in which you can do so is by choosing an affordable (or even free) college or university. 

Interested in affordable and high return-on-investment colleges and universities? Be sure to check out OnlineCollegePlan’s related content on college affordability: 

What Types of Free College Degree Programs Are There?

Strictly speaking, a vast majority of college’s aren’t “free” even if they offer tuition free access to classes. Cost of living while you are studying, supplies, and so forth make even the “freest” college education cost something. With that said, there are a number of ways to reduce the cost of your education to close to nothing which is an amazing financial “win” given the current cost of higher education.

So what are the main ways you can reduce the cost of college close to $0?

  • Pursue free online classes and “test out” of these classes in a paid program later on
  • Gain admission to a college or university that meets 100% of demonstrated financial need
  • Attend an in-state or in-district community college which is 100% free

Let’s take a closer look at these three categories of free college educations.

First, a wide range of colleges and universities offer students who feel they have enough experience or knowledge of a subject matter to “test out” of courses. Some colleges and universities that offer this service, particularly online colleges, are known as competency-based colleges. 

Many of these colleges and universities are geared towards adults who are working full-time and need the greatest amount of flexibility possible to achieve their educational goals. If you think you may want to attend a competency-based degree program, you can lower your eventual cost of education and the time it takes you to get your education by starting to learn course materials before your enrolled.

A wide range of top-notch colleges and universities offer many of their courses online for free as MOOCs (massive open online course), and there are many additional free or budget online courses and communities from other sources as well. By learning in this way — or on the job — you could be setting yourself up to “test out” of courses within a competency-based degree program.

While most programs of this type won’t let you test out of the entirety of your degree program, you can greatly reduce the time and money it costs to attend the program, oftentimes by up to one half or two-thirds of a program length. 

Second, a range of the best colleges and universities in the nation have high enough endowment (funding) levels to be able to meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need of all admitted students. 

Many of these colleges and universities are among the best in the nation and will have correspondingly harder admission standards. So this option may not work for you unless you are an exemplary student. But the way this option works is that you gain admission to a college or university that meets 100% of need. And then you or a family member fill out your Federal Aid application (FAFSA) showing that your expected family contribution is effectively $0. For many of the best schools in the nation, they have even raised the maximum earnings you or your family can have and qualify. For some of the top schools in the nation, if you or your family makes less than $65,000, school is free. 

Our third option for obtaining a free college degree is the most widespread and easily available. A range of states and metropolitan community college districts have instituted free tuition for students that are within the coverage area of the college. Many of these programs include additional stipends for cost of living as well as all required educational materials such as textbooks.

These programs are primarily offered to students who have graduated from high school within the district or state of the community college offered for free, or to individuals who have worked for a number of years within the district of the community college and would like to return to complete a degree.

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