For many high school students, senior year is marked by prom, graduation and, of course, deciding where they will spend the next four years getting a college education. For parents, though, worry stems less from the anxious anticipation of acceptance letters and more often from the arrival of the accompanying tuition bills.
In fact, while the overall inflation rate has increased 115 percent since 1986, the cost of college has risen 500 percent. Those figures are certainly nothing to scoff at, particularly for families who may still be recovering from the economic downturn, dealing with a job loss or more than one child heading to college.
To that end, we’ve compiled a list of some of the country’s most affordable colleges, based on the generosity of their financial aid departments. If you’ve been dreaming of free—or almost free—tuition for your kid, this one’s for you.
Harvard University, Princeton University, Brown University and other Ivy League & Top Liberal Arts Schools
To start a list of value colleges with Ivy League universities may seem counterintuitive to some, but it’s true: Many of the country’s highest rated and most prestigious schools offer the best financial aid packages to students in need—provided they are part of the 10 percent of applicants, on average, who actually get accepted.
Most top schools have adopted a no-loan policy, which means that financial aid packages (including scholarships, grants and work-study) are offered to make up the full gap between total cost of attendance and expected family contribution (known as EFC on the FAFSA). And, of course, there is the notion that having an Ivy League university on your resume that may provide the most value of all.
For a full list of colleges claiming to meet full financial need (according to 2012 data), click here.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
Calculating potential scholarship awards is never easy, even when students have excellent grades, so the good folks at Harrisburg University have made it easy on parents. Students who graduate high school with a 3.8 GPA or higher automatically earn a $20,000 scholarship, renewable yearly (undergrad tuition is $23,900 for the year), while GPAs ranging from 3.3-3.7 net a $10,000 scholarship, and a GPA of 3.0-3.2 qualifies for $8,000. Even students with a GPA of 2.7-2.9 get an automatic $6,000.
The good news is that these merit-based scholarships have zero impact on the ability to earn need-based grants or other financial aid. And there’s an added bonus for local students: Grads from the neighboring Dauphin County School District, Harrisburg School District or Philadelphia School District all qualify for full-tuition scholarships, as long as they meet general admission criteria.
Soka University consistently ranks on national value-based lists because of its strong scholarship program—and for good reason. Admitted students whose families make less than $60,000 per year are automatically considered for a full-tuition Soka Opportunity Scholarship, with prorated awards available to students whose families have higher income levels.
Additionally, the school offers a number of merit-based scholarships to the top students of each entering class. These cover the entire cost of attendance, including not only tuition and living costs, but also indirect costs like travel, personal expenses, books and supplies. According to the university, about half of the incoming freshman class has received a full scholarship for the past three years.
United States Military Academy, United States Coast Guard Academy, United States Naval Academy, United States Merchant Marine Academy and the United States Air Force Academy
For students interested in serving their country, attending one of the five service academies is by far the best option. Tuition is provided to all students for free in exchange for required military service following graduation, and each of the academies consistently rank highly for the quality of education offered.
Attendance at one of the academies is not to be taken lightly, though. Students must attend basic training at the beginning of their freshmen year and follow a strictly regimented daily schedule that requires stamina, discipline and excellent time management skills.
When it comes to schools offering the most unique scholarship opportunities, Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, is sure to rank at the top of the list. The opportunities for students to earn a full ride are vast, from the typical merit-based awards for top incoming students, to the extremely nontraditional scholarships for Syrian nationals (due to the war) and bagpipers or highland drummers. There’s also a full-tuition scholarship available for transfer students and a partial award (up to $21,000) for students actively participating in Presbyterian churches.
All scholarships are renewable each year, and though most students graduate within four years, the awards are available for a fifth, if necessary.
Even though the 2013-2014 tuition at the private, Christian College of the Ozarks is listed at $18,330, none of the students on campus actually pay that. That’s because everyone receives free a free education in exchange for working 15 hours per week on campus. The money earned, plus scholarships and grants, covers all tuition and fees. And in the case of the College of the Ozarks, this is one instance where the saying You get what you pay for certainly doesn’t apply. The school ranked 10th on the U.S. News and World Report’s 2014 Best Regional Colleges list for the Midwest.
If an online education appeals to your child (as well as the opportunity to save on room and board and transportation costs), Western Governors University is a nonprofit, online school that offers degrees in teaching, nursing, IT and business. It was founded by 19 U.S. governors with the sole purpose of keeping college affordable, and their efforts have paid off. Yearly tuition is an extremely reasonable $6,000 per year for most programs, and the costs haven’t gone up in more than six years. WGU also offers scholarships and grants to make their degrees even more affordable.
Looking for more ways to afford college? You might also like… 11 Ways to Flush Out Hidden College Expenses, Filing the FAFSA: What Parents Need to Know