Grants and scholarships are only one way to pay for school. Thankfully there is a whole truckload of others. Before resorting to student loans, check out these lesser-known financial aid programs to see if you can get free college cash:
A handful of schools across the nation provide all students with free or lower-cost tuition in exchange for hard work. At work colleges, holding a part-time job working for the school is a mandatory part of collegiate life. Students work in a wide array of positions, ranging from blacksmith to public relations specialist, and graduate with lower student debt, four years of work experience, and more job recommendations than you can shake a stick at.
Military Academies and the ROTC
The US military will pay for the total cost of college if you are willing to give back. At the 5 US military academies, students receive a full ride including tuition, room, board, and books in exchange for completing military service of at least 5 years after graduation. If living the military 24/7 during college is not your thing, campuses throughout the nation offer ROTC programs that integrate military training into typical collegiate life. Like military academies, ROTC will help pay for college (though it might not foot your entire bill) and students who enroll are required to complete military service after graduation. The silver lining is that those graduating from both ROTC and military academies enter the armed forces as officers, not entry-level cadets, and receive the pay and respect to go with it. The less-than-silver lining: We are fighting quite a few wars.
National Service Programs
If the military isn't your proverbial cup of tea, you can always get to work through Americorps, the Peace Corps or Teach for America. These three service programs provide students with jobs, a living stipend, healthcare coverage, killer work experience, and an educational award of up to $11,100 that can only be used to pay for higher ed expenses. Jobs vary tremendously—Americorps workers are placed on US-based projects ranging from environmental clean-up to after-school tutoring, Peace Corps volunteers work in developing countries around the world, and Teach for America workers teach in high-needs classrooms throughout the US. No prior experience is required, but there are minimum age requirements for entering service and Teach for America volunteers must have 60 hours of college credits under their belts before applying.
Academic Reciprocation Agreements
If you are dying to attend that perfect out-of-state school, but just cannot swing the bill, this little loophole could save you a bundle. Academic reciprocation agreements are exchange pacts that say that if you are at school A and want to major in something that is not offered at that campus, you can hop over to school B and attend for a substantially lower cost. While some reciprocation agreements exist only between individual schools, certain states—like the 16 members of the Academic Common Market or the 15 members of the Western Undergraduate Exchange—offer the deal across all of their in-state public schools. Word of warning—students flock to academic reciprocation agreements like zombies flock to brains. Agreements are limited to a small number of students each year, so if getting way low out-of-state tuition is your goal, act fast. To see if your school offers tuition reciprocation, call your institution's financial aid office to ask or, if you are attending a public institution, contact your state's higher education office to see if any state-wide reciprocation agreements apply.
Tuition Waiver Programs
Some schools just pass out free tuition...for specific populations of disenfranchised students. Through tuition waiver programs, qualified students pay no or substantially reduced tuition. The catch—and you knew there was one, right?—is that tuition waiver programs only exist at a handful of schools across the nation and only apply to students from very specific backgrounds. Programs for active and veteran military personnel, students from adoption or foster care backgrounds, Native American students, and dislocated workers are the most common types of tuition waiver programs. The best way to find out what your school offers is to simply ask. Contact your school's financial aid office to see if you are qualified for free tuition.
If you do graduate with debt, give the bill to your boss. Through loan forgiveness programs, grads with hefty student loan debt agree to work for a specific organization for a certain length of time in exchange for the company paying off all or part of the debt. While the federal government maintains a loan forgiveness program for students going into public service fields (see the next section), individual companies and professional associations offer them too. With the economy the way it is, loan forgiveness programs are becoming increasingly rare, but students going into high-needs fields like nursing and teaching can still find them through private employers, governmental agencies like the National Institutes of Health, and nonprofits.
Of course you can always work your student debt off the old fashioned way. For eager college students willing to put in a bit of sweat, there are TONS of work programs ranging from paid internships to resident advisor positions, all designed to help you tackle your college expenses. Like Santa Claus, work programs go by different names in different places—e.g. co-ops, fellowships, research grants, teaching assistantships, paid practicums, apprenticeships, ad infinitum—but what they all have in common is that they provide money (and sometimes college credit too) for work in your field. Your school's career center should be your first stop for info on job and paid career training programs in your major, but also check out a few online resources including Internships.com and Idealist.org.