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Is It Possible to Earn College Credit for Free?

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Going to college shouldn't leave you with a lifetime of debt. We explore ways to get part or all of your college education for little to no cost, so you can worry about the important stuff.

Free credits?

The cost of education is high - higher than it ever has been, leaving many students defeated before they even begin. Because of rising tuition and limited resources, students are always on the lookout for programs to get college credit with little out-of-pocket expense. Fortunately, there are plenty of programs designed to help you do just that. Whether you're looking for education reimbursement or you're willing to put in physical labor in exchange for tuition, there are ways to get college credit for free. We'll explore some of the best no- and low-cost options to get you the degree you want, without the crushing debt you don't.

The Rising Cost of a College Education

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According to CNN, students from the class of 2012 graduated with an average student debt of $29,400. In 2015, that amount jumped to $30,100 according to TICAS. With fewer high-paying jobs available to new graduates, this represented a hefty debt load for millennials just getting started.

The College Board reports that tuition is continuing to rise as well. Public colleges charged annual rates of $8,885 for in-state and $22,223 for out-of-state students in 2013-2014. Private non-profits billed students as much as $30,131, and for-profit schools charged up to $15,040. Experts expect to see greater hikes in the future.

You Can Get a Degree Tuition Free - Almost

A new online model of education is starting to take hold with students who might not otherwise be able to afford a degree. Programs, such as that offered by University of the People, an accredited distance-learning program, has a limited number of degrees completely tuition free. Students can complete coursework online and, at the end of the class, pay a nominal exam fee that helps the university to remain sustainable. While there is some cost associated with this model, it represents a savings of as much as 95-percent for cash-strapped students.

MOOC For Credit

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Universities from MIT to Yale have stepped up with an impressive list of massive open online courses (MOOC). These classes offer students the opportunity to study everything from Data Science to Magic in the Middle Ages. While most MOOC don't offer students college credit, Diane Thomas from Learning Advisor reports that there are a few exceptions that do:

  • Intermediate Algebra
  • Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach
  • Calculus: Single Variable
  • Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
  • Pre-Calculus
  • Documenting Your Experiences for College Credit

More classes are expected to join the list over time. The American Council on Education is reviewing the thousands of online courses available to determine the benefit to distance learners.

Life Experience

Prior learning assessments, or PLAs, allow students to get credit for life experience. Students with military service, job training experience, internships, and even travel, may qualify. While these tests do need students to pay fees to process the credits, they are accepted at thousands of schools across the country. These tests can shave years of class time and thousands of dollars from a degree program.

Job Programs

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As reported in Money Magazine, schools such as Alice Lloyd, Berea, and Deep Springs College allow students to work off their tuition, earning them a top-quality education with no crushing debt after graduation. While enrollment is small and the space availability is limited, this model provides students with not only the academic credentials they need to succeed but also fosters a lasting work ethic and sense of community.

Certain corporations, such as Starbucks and UPS offer full or partial tuition-reimbursement programs. While many do require the classes to be pertinent to the job at hand, a few offer blanket reimbursement for as much as $10,000 or more of the annual cost of college. You just need to meet certain provisions and keep your job to qualify.

Tuition for Locals

In some areas, locals can get free or low-cost college. Lucky Tulsa County, OK students who graduate with a C average or higher get free tuition at a local community college. Students who attend school from K-12 in Kalamazoo, MI can get free tuition if they attend a public college or university in Michigan.

Of course, Stanford University made a splash with their new financial aid program. Low-income students with family earnings under $125,000 now qualify for free tuition. For students whose families have an income below the $65,000 mark, the school also offers grants that cover room and board, books, and fees.

Tuition in Exchange for Service

Gardener

Those who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces qualify for the G.I. Bill, which can help them receive training once they've left active duty. Other Armed Forces programs can help students to get training and free tuition while serving.

The CUNY Teacher Academy in New York State offers free tuition for those who complete the program and teach for at least two years in the New York Public School System.

For those interested nursing or hospital administration, facilities like the Mayo Clinic, Northwest Community Hospital, and Kaiser Permanente in Oakland offer free tuition assistance as well - under certain circumstances.

The Resources are Out There - Go Get Them

Many of these resources aren't truly free, they do cost you a commitment in time, effort, and sometimes nominal fees. Students can enjoy huge savings on their tuition by being a little creative, however. With growing student debt levels and more and more students being forced to choose between shelter and education, the need for affordable college programs is high. By exploring your options, getting creative, and using the connections you'll gain through work and service projects, you can set yourself up for big savings and a great experience.

By Patricia Willis
February 2017
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