It might seem like a dream: earning a degree online for free. But it’s not just a dream. In fact, there are some colleges and universities that offer free education. So, the answer to the question is a resounding “yes!”
In this article, we’ll examine why free education is necessary in the U.S., discuss some types of free courses available, and point you toward institutions that offer the best opportunities for students who need financial assistance.
The Rising Cost of College
As any student knows, college is not cheap, and tuition costs are regularly increasing. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, the average price for a year of education at a private nonprofit college in 2021 was $37,600, more than enough money to make it out of reach for many prospective students.
Even relatively inexpensive public two-year community colleges charge an average of $3,900, which may be more than many individuals can afford. These costs place an undue burden on students, especially those from disadvantaged households, rendering a college education only possible if they take on large debts that they’ll end up repaying over decades.
For some students, merit- and need-based scholarships may help, along with loans, grants, or other funding sources. But competition for the best funding sources is heavy, and the amount may not be enough to offset the remaining costs. For many students, the heavy financial burden makes education impossible.
Massive Open Online Courses
When looking at free higher education opportunities, there are two possible pathways: MOOCs or degree- and certificate-bearing programs. MOOCs are massive open online courses. They can be found at many colleges and universities, even Ivy Leagues such as Harvard and Yale.
MOOCs are usually asynchronous, meaning they have been taped ahead of time and are available for you to watch when convenient. Thousands of people could end up taking a particular course over a period of time. The courses are generally free and feature lectures and other materials given by faculty members of the sponsoring institution. They cover a broad range of topics, from ancient history to cybersecurity.
If MOOCs sound too good to be true, note that there is one drawback to them: they are not credit-bearing. You cannot take a MOOC and earn a degree or certificate in any subject by taking MOOCs.
Generally, MOOCs are taken by individuals interested in lifelong learning and genuinely desire to learn more about a specific topic. They can be a great way to dip your toe in the water and see if a particular career area interests you or to expand your skill set to include some new task or area of expertise.
Full Scholarships for Online Degree Programs
The second pathway toward higher education opportunities lies with colleges that offer full or close-to-full scholarships and other funding support for all students. In some cases, this is merit-based, but many reputable institutions also offer need-based financial aid to students who would not otherwise be able to afford college.
If you are interested in a particular program, schedule a time to speak to a financial advisor at the college or university to see what they can do for you. Don’t give up because you think it will be too expensive. Here are a few institutions that are known for giving the best scholarship and grant funding to their students:
Macaulay Honors College of CUNY
Part of the City University of New York series, this Manhattan-based college offers full scholarship aid to most students. Although many courses are in-person, hybrid and online classes are also offered. Online programs include a certificate in justice and equity offered in conjunction with Arizona State University. The school is highly selective, with a focus on high-achieving students who are looking for leadership opportunities.
Curtis Institute of Music
Curtis Institute was the first music conservatory to offer a MOOC class on Coursera. Since it launched in 2013, Curtis’s courses on a range of music-focused topics have been viewed by more than 150,000 people in 185 countries. The current Coursera courses are dedicated to exploring Beethoven’s piano sonatas, providing students with a good first look at the composer’s works.
Warren Wilson College
Located outside of Asheville, North Carolina, Warren Wilson College offers free tuition for N.C. residents eligible for federal or state need-based financial aid. The school offers online courses through the Acadeum College Consortium, a network of colleges and universities that share online resources. Students interested in taking a course via the consortium need to sign up for an account and then choose from among the courses the college has approved for online use.
One of the best-known universities in the U.S. is Princeton. Princeton’s free online classes are MOOCs, taught by some of the institution’s most prestigious faculty members. MOOC courses that you can take from Princeton include The Art of Structural Engineering, Reinventing the Piano, and Global History of Capitalism. In addition, Princeton covers all tuition costs for lower-income students whose families earn up to $65,000 annually in their degree-bearing programs.
Through the University’s Peabody College, all graduate students receive full tuition funding. Peabody is Vanderbilt’s venue for programs in education and human development, and it offers online degrees, including a doctorate of education in leadership and learning in organizations. This program is designed for mid-career professionals with several years of leadership experience.
University of the People
One of the most promising free or low-cost online education options is the University of the People. This accredited university charges no tuition, although there are fees involved that students must pay. The university is 100 percent online and global in scope. Multiple corporate and philanthropic partners, from Meta to the United Nations, support the institution, allowing it to offer a tuition-free educational experience for students across the globe.
University of the People offers a range of certificate programs, as well as associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Bachelor’s degree programs include business administration, computer science, and health science, while at the master’s level, you can focus on business administration, information technology, or education. For students from outside of the U.S., there is a non-degree program available in English as a second language.
The Distance Education Accrediting Commission, a CHEA-recognized accrediting organization, accredits the university. This lets you know that the programs are rigorously reviewed regularly and are held to high academic standards.
Keep in mind that although courses are tuition-free, there are fees involved. The university estimates that a student earning a bachelor’s degree will spend a total of $4,860 during their time at the university, while an MBA degree will cost approximately $3,660.