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: $12,658
- In-State Public University Tuition and Fees in Vermont: $40,742
- In-State Public University Tuition and Fees Nationwide: $13,129
- Average Private University Tuition Nationwide: $24,659
- Full “Sticker Price” Tuition at Columbia University: $57,208
- Average In-District Community College Tuition and Fees: $3,347
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 1/19th 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:
- The 50 Most Affordable Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs in America
- The 20 Most Affordable Art and Music Colleges in America
- The 20 Most Affordable Small Private Colleges in America
- The 20 Most Affordable Graduate Schools in America
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.
While your eventual goal may be a bachelor’s degree or beyond, associates are some of the best “bang for their buck” degrees out there (particularly when free). Additionally, many community college programs provide “transfer agreements” with four-year colleges and universities. These transfer agreements allow interested students to gain automatic admission to local public colleges and universities if they meet certain requirements (such as keeping their GPA above a certain level).
The Best Colleges Offering Free Online Courses
The emergence of massively open online courses (MOOCs) has opened the door to being able to obtain a world-class education for free. Many of the world’s top universities offer a wide range of courses that are presented fully online and for free (or a nominal fee for a certificate).
While it’s unlikely that MOOCs will lead directly to a degree — except for through a few experimental programs — MOOCs can be used to for the first option for obtaining a free college education that we describe in the last section. Namely, that you can use an education gained through free online courses to then “test out” of courses at a competency-based college or university. This can — at the very least — drastically lower the time and cost of obtaining a degree. Alternatively, if you’re primarily seeking job skills or knowledge instead of college credits, any of these locations are great options for obtaining a free education.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the world’s preeminent universities among social sciences, technology, business and more. This forward-looking university has taken a number of steps towards making world-class education more easily available to all and is also one of a handful of universities in the United States to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need. This means that beyond free open online courses (MOOCs), students who make less than a certain amount (or whose family does) can attend MIT for free. Potentially the hardest part of that process is gaining admission, as MIT has one of the most competitive admissions processes of any school on the planet.
In an effort towards making world-class education available to the widest possible audience, MIT was an early proponent of MOOCs and helped to establish the largest collection of free online courses of any university. MIT calls its platform OpenCourseWare, and on it, you can find free online courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels (a rarity among other entities on this list) in thousands of topics.
One unique element about MIT’s OpenCourseWare is that the bar to placing a course onto the platform is actually somewhat low. Not all courses offered on the platform are fully “finished” with some including videos of all classes, some including just reading lists and notes, and others including a whole online course-like experience. While this may be a downside for some, it has allowed MIT to provide a much wider range of online “courses” to the public for free than any other competing institution.
Stanford University has become a household name as potentially the best University in the western United States as well as a leading figure within the technological innovations that have occurred in Silicon Valley. With the growth of online education, one wouldn’t expect Stanford to be far from the pulse, and they aren’t. Particularly known for their offerings in computer science, psychology, and a range of other topics, Stanford’s fully open online courses (MOOCs) don’t disappoint.
Located on the Coursera, as well as EdX platforms, Stanford’s online offerings are more defined into individual tracks than those of MIT. Though MIT offers a much wider range of courses, instructors at Stanford have focused on providing support for communities to learn along clearly defined paths.
A range of the most popular MOOCs of all time have been created by Stanford, often covering topics related to in-demand work skills including machine vision, data science, blockchain, algorithms, game theory and more. A full list of Stanford courses provided as MOOCs on all platforms may be found here.
The University of Michigan
The University of Michigan offers the third-largest concentration of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) from an American university. Known for their world-class programs in a wide range of disciplines including psychology, nursing, social sciences, library sciences, social work, and more, Michigan is able to offer a different focus on MOOCs than other top universities. Alongside a greater variety of courses not in computing, the University of Michigan is a great place to take free online courses due to the quality control and standardization they employ in their MOOC offerings.
All MOOCs offered by the University of Michigan are fully verified by EdX, meaning they are of commensurate quality with full university course material. Additionally, the University of Michigan has built on these open availability courses to begin offering a number of unique programs constructed of MOOC-like courses. While paid, courses of study such as “micro Masters” can offer a much more affordable way to get a graduate degree-like experience.
Users of the EdX platform should note that while there is a paid “verified certificate” version of most (if not all courses) on the platform, that payment may be circumvented just by searching for individual courses outside of their pathway.
The University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania is routinely ranked as one of the 10 best universities in the world. Known for innovative programming and wide-ranging research initiatives, Penn’s Online Learning Initiative is one of the prominent leaders within the MOOC creation space. With courses housed on a variety of platforms, Penn’s Online Learning Initiative offers over 120 MOOCs as well as a host of online courses that can be taken for-credit, not-for-credit, as well as in non-degree programs.
Some of the most unique aspects of Penn’s Online Learning Initiative offerings include the focus on Spanish-language content, with particularly strong showings in business, marketing, and psychology. It’s of additional note that the Online Learning Initiative helps to bolster the already strong support measures offered by Coursera and EdX with their own world-class online pedagogy and film editing services.
Students interested in business, game theory, and psychology all stand to benefit greatly by utilizing the University of Pennsylvania’s free online courses. A wide range of these courses is offered by the world-renowned Wharton School of Business.
The University of Illinois
The University of Illinois, based in Urbana-Champaign, is one of the finest information sciences, engineering, and business schools in the nation. In recent years they’ve built up a robust online presence of both free (massive open online courses, or MOOCs) as well as paid online for-credit programming. Particularly noteworthy clusters of online programming include a range of MOOCs, paid bachelor’s through doctoral degree programs, and professional certificate programs.
If you’re looking for MOOCs from the University of Illinois, all are hosted on Coursera. A wide range of subjects is available including education, computing, international development, health care, law, and even 3D printing. A range of innovative for-credit programs may be undertaken for a smaller fee than traditional coursework and provides the opportunity for individuals taking MOOCs to pursue a master of business administration or a master of accountancy degree.
The Best Online Schools Offering Free Tuition
Typically speaking, the “better” the school you attend, the larger their endowment. School endowments are raised by alumni who do well and love their alma mater. They are also raised by colleges and universities that perform well at a specific activity or academic topic. Schools that are great at sports, or that have great academic programming typically have larger endowments.
So what does this have to do with tuition costs? Well, many of the colleges and universities with the largest endowments have made commitments to use some portion of that money to offset undue costs of education for their students.
There are typically three groups of schools that offer a “free” education.
- Colleges and Universities that will meet 100% of demonstrated financial need without student loans
- Colleges and Universities that will meet 100% of demonstrated financial need with student loans
- Colleges and Universities that will meet 100% the cost of tuition, room and board, and so forth for all students due to a special mission (like military colleges) or due to being work colleges
You may notice that two of these categories — which are the most common arrangements — rely on applicants demonstrating financial need. So how does this work?
All regionally accredited colleges and universities provide the option for students to fill out a Federal Application for Student Aid (known as a FAFSA). This application takes a look at you (or your family’s) earnings in relation to the cost of the school you’re attending.
For most schools, the FAFSA is used to make yourself eligible for federally-subsidized student loans. But for some schools with the strongest financial aid departments, you (or your family’s) expected contribution is used as a number over which you don’t have to spend a dime. These are called 100% need-met organizations. Furthermore, some of these schools will meet your demonstrated need without the use of any student loans. These schools are essentially free for those who are below a certain income level.
A list of colleges and universities that are 100% need-met reads like a list of the top colleges in the United States. All of the below colleges are universities that meet 100% of your demonstrated need. Some utilize student loans, and some cover all expenses through grants and scholarships:
- Amherst College
- Bowdoin College
- Brown University
- Colby College
- Columbia University
- Davidson College
- Harvard University
- Northwestern University
- Pomona College
- Princeton University
- Stanford University
- Swarthmore College
- University of Chicago
- University of Pennsylvania
- US Air Force Academy
- US Military Academy (West Point)
- US Naval Academy
- Vanderbilt University
- Washington and Lee University
- Yale University
Additionally, a list of “work colleges” often allows students to attend for free in exchange for working for the college or university throughout their college career. Members of the Work College Consortium may be seen below:
- Alice Lloyd College
- Berea College
- Bethany Global University
- Blackburn College
- College of the Ozarks
- Paul Quinn College
- Sterling College
- Warren Wilson College
Among the above 100% need-met colleges and universities, a small portion also offers online degrees. These are the schools we’ve pulled out as this year’s ranking of the best free online colleges and universities!
Brown University is an ivy league university located in the quaint city of Providence, Rhode Island. Brown is known for its innovation and completely “out of the box” thinking. Undergraduate students have the opportunity to design their own curriculum. The Open Curriculum model at Brown is different from a typical college curriculum as students do not need to follow a set of courses in order to complete their education. Rather, they design a course based on their passions and follow that. This type of freedom and innovation is certainly extended to their graduate programming and their innovative online practices.
Brown offers four distinct online course options to meet the needs of professionals, undergraduates, pre-college hopefuls, and literally anyone interested in taking an online course via BrownX.
- Executive Programs
- Undergraduate Online Courses
- Pre-College Online Courses
- Open Online Courses
Social justice and equality are part of Brown’s mission statement. The university works to ensure that individuals are not penalized due to income. In the spirit of fairness and opportunity, Brown offers need-blind tuition for international students, low-income students, DACA, undocumented students and more. If you have a demonstrated financial need, Brown is 100% committed to meeting that need.
Columbia University is a research Ivy League university located in New York City. The link between Columbia’s research and its location is important as Columbia seeks to design education that reflects the endless resources one should expect to find in a city like New York. Like with most mega metropolises, New York has a global focus. So therefore, does Columbia. Their online degree programs are completely in line with their on-campus mission. Columbia offers a number of online master’s degree programs through its various graduate and professional schools. Students may pursue a variety of professional certifications as well. The courses are offered online or as a hybrid. Take a look at schools offering online courses:
- School of Engineering and Applied Science
- School of Social Work
- School of Professional Studies
- Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
- Columbia Business School
- Earth Institute
- Columbia University Medical Center
- Columbia University Law School
Whatever your financial circumstances, Columbia University aims to bridge the gap with its generous need-blind policies. The university assists individuals with a “full need” for U.S. citizens and eligible non-citizens. Additional funding opportunities are also available. The 0 parents contribution policy insures that parents who make less than $60,000 annually do not have to make financial contributions to the cost of attendance.
Harvard University is arguably the most famous university in the United States. This ivy league powerhouse has done an incredible job in recent years creating free MOOCS for anyone interested in expanding their mind. In case you haven’t heard of Harvard… Harvard is an Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It has the highest level of research activity according to Carnegie and maintains an extremely low student-to-faculty ratio of 7:1. The university houses some of the most famous professional schools in the world including the world-famous Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. The Harvard Extension School is an opportunity. You can earn undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as certifications or take courses. Are you looking to advance your career online? Try the extension school. Are you considering a shift in your career but looking to explore? Try one of the courses offered through the extension school. You’ll have the option to complete the certification or simply audit the course.
- Pre-Med Studies
- Professional Development
- Learning In Retirement
Harvard offers need-blind opportunities for individuals with a demonstrated financial need. Harvard wants to best to come to their university. To ensure they recruit the best, Harvard remains need-blind. The college guarantees that need will “never affect your chance of being admitted to Harvard.”
Northwestern University is a private four-year institution located in Evanston, Illinois. The student-to-faculty ratio is 6:1. This research university is an R:1 institution with the highest research activity according to Carnegie. The university offers innovative opportunities to expand your horizons both personally and intellectually. The university continues to expand its programs through its innovative online degrees. The School of Professional Studies offers online degrees and certifications to students seeking advanced degrees or simply looking to further their education. Courses are offered in a wide variety of formats including fully online and in a blended model. Here are just a few areas of study available online via Northwestern Online:
- School of Professional Studies
- School of Education and Social Policy
- Feinberg School of Medicine
- The Graduate School
- The Pritzker School of Law
- The McCormick School of Engineering
Northwestern does have a need-blind policy for students who are U.S. Citizens and other permanent residents. The university ensures that your financial background will not affect their decision to admit.
Stanford University is known for its innovation and is responsible for the incredible technological boom of the surrounding area. This university is home to some of the greatest professional schools in the world and offers incredible degree opportunities in the fields of robotics, environmental science, humanities, biology, psychology and so much more. People of a wide variety of interests fit in well at Stanford. Their interdisciplinary research model means that research at Stanford doesn’t happen in isolated silos but seeks input from a wide variety of disciplines. Stanford Online offers online graduate certifications and online degree programs. There is an impressive number of programs for individuals who are looking to advance their careers. Take a look at schools offering online programming.
- Graduate School of Business
- Stanford Continuing Studies
- Stanford School of Engineering
- Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences
- Stanford Law School
- Stanford School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences
- Stanford School of Medicine
- Stanford Graduate School of Education
When requesting financial aid how can you be sure Stanford won’t admit based on financial aid? The answer is that they have a need-blind policy. Most of the best institutions in the US use a need-blind policy to ensure that students are not discriminated against due to need.
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania is a private Ivy League university located in Philadelphia. It currently enrolls over 25,000 students and still maintains a student-to-faculty ratio of just 6:1. UPenn has an impact on local and global communities and includes a global think tank devoted to innovations locally and abroad. Students are awarded the president’s innovation prize of $100,000 for students who create a “commercial venture that makes a positive difference in the world.” UPenn has honored such thinkers since its founding year of 1740. There are a number of online programs available through the Penn Online Learning Initiative including degrees, certificates, MOOCs, CECs and more. This online learning platform is second to none and has something for everyone.
- Degrees and Certificates
- Non-Credit Certificates
- Continuing Education Units
- Series and Specializations
UPenn is one of the top universities in the world and as such seeks to recruit only the best scholars from across the globe. Part of the way they achieve this goal is to offer a need-blind tuition to any individual who can show a demonstrated financial need.
Vanderbilt is a private institution located in Nashville, Tennessee. This doctoral university has very high research activity and enrolls over 12,000 while maintaining a student-to-faculty ratio of 7:1. The university offers online degree programs in engineering, education and development, music, medicine, nursing, law, business and more. Vanderbilt currently ranks among the top universities in the world and continues to evolve locally and globally through its innovative online degree offerings. There are three schools currently offering advanced degrees online. Vanderbilt has done an excellent job honing in on in-need areas that are in high demand. If you are looking to advance your career in one of the following fields, then you can’t go wrong with Vanderbilt Online.
Vanderbilt is need-blind in the admissions process seeking to offer 100% financial aid to students who have been admitted to study with Vanderbilt. This means that individuals who show a demonstrated financial need can not be turned away for admission. Admission remains merit-based therefore and not need-based.