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Most schools have rolling admissions and financial help so you can start your degree in a few weeks!

Once you’ve earned a Ph.D., you’ll be able to enjoy career benefits such as a higher average salary and lower unemployment. The high tuition for these programs may put you off. It is not uncommon for the listed tuition for online Ph.D. programs to exceed $1,000 per credit.

But is that really what a Ph.D. program would cost you? According to the 2021 Survey of Earned Doctorates, most doctorate recipients in every field except psychology report holding absolutely no debt related to their graduate education. By selecting an affordable school and taking advantage of resources such as assistantships and dissertation grants, you may be able to eliminate the cost of earning your Ph.D. entirely. This guide will show you how to reduce the expenses associated with Ph.D. programs as much as possible.

How to Get a Ph.D. For Free

According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates referenced above, only 15.3% of doctorate recipients relied on their own money as their primary source of financial support for earning their degree. Below, we’ll show you how to become part of the 85% that can use outside resources to fund their online Ph.D. program.

Avoid non-accredited degree mills

Before we get into the different types of financial resources available for online Ph.D. students, it’s important to note that some programs should be avoided altogether.

You should make sure that any private college you’re considering is a nonprofit organization. Many private for-profit organizations that offer online degree programs, especially those that claim to offer “free” degree programs, are actually degree mills. This means they operate like a postsecondary institution even though they don’t have the proper accreditation to award legitimate degrees.

Degree mills focus more on generating revenue than providing high-quality education. They often attract users by advertising free tuition, only to charge an assortment of other fees (exam fees, graduation fees, etc.). If you attend a degree mill, you’ll likely waste a lot of money on a program that doesn’t have qualified instructors or an effective curriculum. Worse yet, employers generally don’t respect degrees earned from these institutions, so it won’t even help you advance your career.

There are a few ways to determine whether a college is legitimate. First, if a school’s domain name doesn’t end in “.edu,” that’s a big red flag. Even a “.org” suffix is suspicious, and you certainly shouldn’t trust any online college that ends in “.com.”

You can also use the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to review a school’s accreditation records. Look for the names of CHEA-recognized accrediting organizations. Colleges approved by one of these organizations are held to strict standards for academic quality, ensuring that students will be prepared to enter their chosen field upon graduation. This is what employers want to see.

See if you qualify for any scholarships or grants

24.2% of doctorate recipients use fellowships, scholarships, or dissertation grants as the primary source of funding for their doctorate program. We recommend reaching out to the financial aid offices of the schools you’re considering to see what they offer for new Ph.D. students, and you should check out the scholarships provided by private organizations as well.

After submitting your FAFSA each year, apply for any of these financial aid options that you may qualify for. Be sure to research these opportunities as soon as you can, as this will help you avoid missing key deadlines.

Here are a few examples to give you an idea of exactly how these award programs work:

  • Meta Research Ph.D. Fellowship Program: This award is for Ph.D. students researching certain areas of computer science and engineering relevant to Meta (the parent company of Facebook), such as database systems and virtual reality. To apply, students must send a resume, research statement, and two letters of recommendation. Fellows receive a total stipend of $42,000.
  • CAPCSD Ph.D. Scholarships: Every year, the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders awards $20,000 to students enrolled in a Ph.D. program for communication sciences and disorders. Applicants must submit a curriculum vitae, a summary of their research dissertation plan, and a letter of support from their research advisor signed by the program director.
  • Russell Sage Foundation Dissertation Research Grants: This award of up to $10,000 is for doctoral students researching topics related to the Russell Sage Foundation’s mission of improving social and living conditions in the United States. Funds from this program must be used specifically for dissertation research expenses, such as study participant incentives, laboratory costs, and travel.

You can check out our scholarship database for more information on this subject.

Find a fully funded Ph.D. program

Finally, 21.3% of doctorate recipients fund most of their degree expenses from teaching assistantships, and another 34.7% primarily receive funding from research assistantships and traineeships.

These resources are often packaged with Ph.D. programs to form a “fully funded” Ph.D. option. In exchange for working at your university in a teaching or research role, they’ll cover the cost of your tuition. Such programs may also offer benefits like health insurance, a stipend for living expenses, and tuition waivers. Just keep in mind that fully funded Ph.D. programs tend to be highly competitive, so you’ll likely need to be a top student in order to take advantage of these benefits.

The 50 Best Free Online Ph.D. Programs

Best Free PHD Programs Online Badge

NYU Steinhardt

Duke University

Boston University

American University

How We Rank Schools

This list features some of the country’s best free online Ph.D. programs. Each school featured is a nonprofit, accredited institution, either public or private, with a high standard of academic quality for postsecondary institutions.

We evaluated each school’s program on tuition costs, admission, retention and graduation rates, faculty, and reputation. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Next, we compared this comprehensive list of the best free online Ph.D. programs to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications, such as U.S. News & World Report, to simplify a student’s college search. We pored through these rankings so students don’t have to.

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