When Collis Robinson attended Berea College in Kentucky, he worked typical campus jobs – cleaning restrooms and setting up events. But he also worked jobs students don’t usually do, including comptroller for the campus activities board and, as a senior, student director of the board.
“I led 22 people and had a $70,000 budget to manage,” says Robinson, now the director of student labor at Berea. “I got to gain a lot of transferable skills.”
Gaining work experience while getting an education was made even sweeter by the fact that Robinson didn’t pay a dime in tuition.
Berea College is called a “work college,” meaning students must work as part of the learning experience toward a degree. There are nine official four-year work colleges, but only three offer free tuition, including Berea.
Most free tuition programs are funded through a mix of endowments, alumni gifts and grants. Sometimes students’ earnings are applied to help cover tuition, but other times they keep their wages.
Students usually pay for fees, room and board, books and supplies. These additional costs may be covered by federal aid like Pell Grants along with scholarships and loans.
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While free tuition is sometimes offered at community colleges, it’s rare at four-year schools. The average undergraduate annual tuition and fees across all undergraduate institutions is $12,600, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students at private nonprofit schools pay the most: $33,800 annually, on average.
If you’re looking for your entire tuition to be covered and you’re open to an experience that includes mandatory work — one school labels itself “Hard Work U” — here are four colleges to consider.
Alice Lloyd College
Alice Lloyd College is a private work college in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, that offers free tuition; students must come from one of 108 Central Appalachian counties. Students are expected to work 10 to 20 hours every week at minimum wage.
Additional costs not covered: Room, board and matriculation fees totaling $9,030 per year for on-campus students. Matriculation and fees totaling $4,450 per year for commuters. Students cover additional costs like books and supplies.
Types of jobs: Students work throughout the campus in 14 departments such as dining, day care, groundskeeping and the student newspaper. Off-campus jobs provide services to the community.
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Berea College is a private liberal arts work college with free tuition. All students are required to work a minimum of 10 hours or up to 20 per week on campus in different departments. Students typically earn $2,000 for the academic year.
Additional costs not covered: Registration costs, housing, meals, fees totaling $7,354.
Types of jobs: There are more than 100 campus programs for students to find work, including academic support, community service, alumni development and student services.
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College of the Ozarks
College of the Ozarks — aka Hard Work U — is a private evangelical college in Point Lookout, Missouri, with free tuition. Because the school does not want students to take out loans, it does not participate in any federal, state or private loan programs. Students must work 15 hours per week and complete two 40-hour workweeks per school year. Typically, students earn $4,480 per year toward their cost of education. Students may also apply for the 12-week full-time summer work program, which would cover room and board.
Additional costs not covered: $7,600 annually for room and board. Fees include a $330 one-time acceptance fee and $230 for health/technology/service each semester.
Types of jobs: Students work in every conceivable “station” on campus including admissions, a hog farm, carpentry, fire department, library and laundry.
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Deep Springs College
Deep Springs College isn’t one of the official work colleges. It’s a two-year liberal arts college in Dyer, Nevada, with a student body of 24 to 30 students, located on a high-desert cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. All accepted students receive a scholarship covering tuition and room and board, estimated at a value of $50,000. All students are expected to work 20 hours per week.
Additional costs not covered: Students provide a small damage deposit and cover books, travel, medical insurance and any personal expenses. Those with financial need may receive additional assistance.
Types of jobs: Students work in the kitchen and dining hall, farm, garden, dairy mechanic shop, ranch or office.
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How you can benefit from work-study anywhere
You don’t have to attend a niche school to lower attendance costs through work. Over 3,400 colleges and universities participate in the Federal Work-Study Program. To qualify, students must submit the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid and have demonstrated financial need. It’s a first-come, first-served program where jobs are not guaranteed. Among those who did work-study in 2017-18, average earnings were $1,693, according to a 2018 survey by the private lender Sallie Mae.
MORE: What is work-study?
MORE: ’Free’ college tuition programs will still cost you
MORE: Your guide to financial aid
Anna Helhoski is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @annahelhoski
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