By Christopher Gray, Founder & CEO of Scholly

With the average total cost of a 4-year degree currently sitting at approximately $122,000, the idea of paying $0 for college might sound crazy.

But if you’ve read about my experience paying $0 for college or the stories of countless others, you know $0 for college is within reach. In fact, my experience paying $0 for college is what inspired me to create Scholly in the first place! 

Yes, scholarships are an important piece of the $0 college puzzle. But it’s not the only piece. In this post, I’m going to show you how, with a bit of planning and hardwork, you can pay $0 for college, or at the very least, graduate with $0 in debt. 

With that goal in mind, we’ll look into why I recommend that you: 

  1. Compare financial aid packages from public and private colleges 
  2. Submit the FAFSA early every year 
  3. Take advantage of community colleges and in-state free tuition Promise Programs
  4. Apply for as many scholarships as you can 
  5. Work part-time for a company that offers tuition reimbursement 
  6. Cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit  
  7. Develop a budget you can stick to

Want to know why? Read on to find out! 

1. Compare financial aid packages from public and private colleges 

Public colleges tend to be much cheaper than private ones. So, it only makes sense to go to a public college if you’re really looking to graduate debt free, right? Not so fast!

Public vs. Private Colleges

Average Cost of Tuition, Fees, Room and Board for 2019-20 Academic Year 

Private  Public
$49,870 $21,950


Although private colleges have a higher price tag on average, they are also much more likely to offer you a generous financial aid package in the form of grants and scholarships that can end up covering a large chunk of the costs. 

For example, for the 2017-18 academic year, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that at public colleges an average of 50% of students received institutional grants with the average grant being $6,200 per year. 

While, on the other hand, at non-profit private colleges, an average of 83% of students received institutional grants with the average grant being $21,300 per year. And that’s not even including other forms of financial aid like federal grants, scholarships, and work study!

Starting to see what we mean about private colleges being able to offer more financial aid?  

This, of course, is only true if you qualify for financial aid. But according to the Princeton Review, 85% of students receive some form of financial aid. 

And, yes, it is still possible to get a good financial aid package from a public college that cuts down on your total costs, especially if you’re eligible for in-state tuition. 

So, our main point here is to not make the mistake of completely disqualifying private colleges just because the price tag seems too high at first glance. Apply to both, public and private colleges, and compare the financial aid offers to find the one that makes the most sense for you.

2. Take advantage of community colleges and in-state free tuition Promise Programs

Another route you may want to consider to get your starting costs for college as close to $0 as possible would be to attend a community college for the first two years.

Depending on what you plan to study, you can either earn an associate degree in your field or credits that are transferable to a four-year college degree. You could potentially even knock out  all of your major’s prerequisite classes at a fraction of the cost.  

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for the 2018-19 academic year, the average cost per year for a two year degree program at a community college was $3,700 – making it way cheaper than two years at public or private colleges.

Some states now even have Promise Programs, which are statewide programs that offer free tuition to first time, full-time students who are residents of the state to attend a local community college. 

So far, these states have tuition-free Promise Programs for student attending eligible community colleges:

So, if you’re a resident of one of those states and looking to really save some money, you may want to check out those programs! 

3. Submit the FAFSA early every year

Another money saving secret is to fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student AId (FAFSA) early. 

Every year the FAFSA opens up in October with a very non-urgent deadline – over half a year later in June. But by no means does that mean you should wait that long to submit it. Quite the contrary, in fact! 

You should submit the application as early as you can. Because according to the U.S. News and World Report, the best financial aid packages go to the qualifying students that apply early. That means those students will receive more aid in the form of grants and scholarships instead of federal loans. 

So, to get your starting cost as close to $0 as possible and make it all the more likely that you’ll graduate debt free, submit your FAFSA as soon as possible! 

If you’ve never filled out the FAFSA before or need a refresher on what you’ll need to complete it, check out our comprehensive guide on How to Apply for FAFSA.

4. Apply for as many scholarships as you can 

While getting the best financial aid package possible is an important first step to making sure your costs for college are low, it might not get you all the way down to $0. 

But securing outside scholarships just might do the trick! In fact, there are even some full-ride scholarships that cover the total cost of tuition, room and board, fees, and even books. 

The only problem is that, if you’re like a lot of students, there’s a chance you’ll miss out on these scholarship opportunities. Why? 

Well, there are many reasons. But these seem to be the most common: 

  • You don’t know where to find scholarships 
  • You mistakenly think that you don’t have a good chance at receiving a scholarship because you’re not an A+ student, star athlete, science nerd, etc. 
  • You’re applying to scholarships but you don’t know how to put together a good enough application to actually get the scholarships

Sound familiar? If so, you’re in luck!

At Scholly, our mission is to help make college affordable for all. So, we have developed a number of tools and resources, like Scholly Search, to help you find, apply and get scholarships to pay for college! 

We highly encourage you to apply for all of the scholarships that you qualify for because it’s one of the best ways to get your costs for college as close to $0 as possible. 

5. Work part-time for a company that offers tuition reimbursement 

To earn some extra money to cover the costs of things like books, leisure activities, and other miscellaneous expenses, you may also consider getting a part-time job while in college. 

If so, a really good idea would be to look into working for a company that offers tuition reimbursement for its employees who are simultaneously enrolled in college. 

What this means is that you can earn money to put toward your college degree in addition to your regular salary! We’d say that’s a win, win. Wouldn’t you?  

Here are 12 companies that currently offer part-time workers tuition reimbursement for approved college programs: 

To find even more companies that offer tuition reimbursement, check out our list of 50 Companies with Amazing Tuition Reimbursement Programs!

6. Cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit  

Another way to make some cash during college involves thinking like an entrepreneur. 

Now, that doesn’t mean you need to develop a product to sell or invent the next social media platform in between classes. Although, by all means, go for it if that’s your thing! 

What we mean, though, is looking for gigs that don’t require you to have a specialized degree, fixed schedule or huge upfront costs to get started. 

We’re talking about things like:

  • Babysitting
  • Dog Walking
  • House sitting 
  • Tutoring in person or online  
  • Rideshare driving for Uber or Lyft 
  • Freelance writing or social media consulting 
  • Becoming a virtual assistant

These are just a few ideas. There are so many more! We discuss a few of our favorites in our blog posts on online jobs for teens and the best ways to make extra money.  

The best part is that these types of jobs are easy to fit into your schedule as a college student and, depending on what you do and how much time you put into it, could lead to you earning some serious cash that helps you avoid graduating with debt!

7. Develop a realistic budget you can stick to

Budgeting may not seem directly related to going to college for free. But if you follow the other tips we’ve mentioned in this post, budgeting can help make sure you graduate with $0 in debt from loans or credit cards. And that’s the real goal here! 

Unfortunately, though, most students get budgeting wrong. That’s because they think a budget means vowing to cut out all spending on things like eating out at restaurants, the occasional coffee, or really anything fun. What’s wrong with that? It’s not sustainable in the long term! 

So do yourself a favor. Develop a realistic budget that you can stick to! The more detailed you can get when writing your budget, the better. 

Take the time to write down how much you need to spend on fixed costs like rent for off-campus housing and bills as well as variable costs for things you enjoy like going to the movies, going out to eat, etc. 

And when you’re starting out with your first budget, consider using an app to track your expenses

For more ideas on how to manage your finances and save money, check out our blog post on how to save money in college.

Final thoughts 

College can be really expensive. But, I hope you can take the “secrets” you’ve learned here to either make going to college for free or graduating debt free a reality! 

And if you want more advice on how to pay for college, make sure to check out the Scholly blog where we share tips on how to apply for scholarships, avoid student loan debt, and get the most out of your college education.