If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The origin of the saying is unknown. However, we do know of a similar phrase used by Mark Twain in his book- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Huck’s companion, Jim, says, “It’s too good for true, honey, it’s too good for true”. Does this apply to colleges offering free tuition? We will examine some of the nuances of these offers–without mentioning specific schools. This should not deter you from seeking these schools. We encourage you to conduct further research into all means of saving on the high cost of tuition. We present this material as a source of information. Take note that the eligibility requirements differ.

Sources for Funds

Where does the money come from if not from the students paying for their attendance? Most of the funds come from alumni, benefactors, such as corporations, endowment fund, grants, and donations. In addition, there is the government. New York State, for example, passed a bill in 2017 to allow community colleges and four-year colleges and universities to charge no tuition for families earning less than $125,000. The plan phases in over three years, starting with families with incomes less than $100,000. Here is the too good to be true part…under a provision that was added to the tuition bill at the last moment, students who get a free ride at CUNY and SUNY schools must live and work in New York State for up to four years after graduation, or be forced to pay the money back. Governor Cuomo included this provision so a student would not receive a free college education, and then find a job in California, for example.

Will Work for Tuition

One innovative way to offer free tuition is to have students perform work on the campus. This avoids the cost of employing people to do jobs as gardening, cleaning, and teaching assistants. One college has a 250-acre organic farm actually produces 10% of the food eaten in the cafeteria including beef, pork, chicken, goat, and vegetables. Students must work 10-15 hours a week in any of these tasks to receive free tuition. Typically, students earn in the range of $4.10 to $6.55 per hour by the college. Because of the scheduling demands of both an academic requirement and a labor requirement, schools might not permit off-campus jobs.

Other schools pay the current minimum wage to work on or off-campus. Some of the areas in which students work are the campus dining facilities, grounds, maintenance, intramurals, the library, Student Services, and community services. They also serve as academic and administrative assistants, public building janitors, dorm janitors, Resident Advisors, and lifeguards. This also allows them to earn additional funds to cover room and board and other expenses incurred during the school year.


Consequently, a college offering free tuition receives many applications. This results in selectivity. For instance, a college receives 1,620 applications, accepts 551, and enrolls 397 of them. The schools can also be selective in choosing high school students from the top 10% or high SAT scores. Selectivity can extend to the need for financial assistance. Schools may make this determination using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. This is a program of the U.S. Department of Education that decides who is financially eligible for federal grants for college tuition.

Programs Vary

Free tuition does not always mean a free education. Beyond tuition, your education costs include living expenses (room and board), meals, books, matriculation fee. The amount owed by the student could depend upon his or her financial aid package. Other colleges have more generous financial aid programs. You may want to look into schools with summer work programs. Twelve 40-hour workweeks could guarantee free room and board for the next academic year.

Even Ivy League schools offer aid to international students the same as American students. To be eligible, your family income could be as low as $60,000 to receive zero contribution from your family. In addition, this could be on a gradient system where you pay a percentage based on income. For example, a family salary of $65,000 to $150,000 may range from a 0% to 10% contribution. However, you still need to meet the admissions qualifications of these elite schools. Non-elite (Ivy League status) may have a debt-free education plan, which requires your family income to be at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines ($50,200-2018).

State Programs

In addition to New York State’s program, other states have followed suit. North Carolina, for example, has their reduced tuition program. The NC Promise Tuition Plan will reduce in-state tuition cost to $500 per semester and out-of-state tuition to $2,500 per semester beginning in Fall 2018. This applies to all students, including those who began their college career before Fall 2018. The coverage only applies to tuition. There is no discount for other costs, such as fees, room, board, and books. The NC Tuition Free Plan covers the cost of your tuition after the application of federal and/or state aid. More importantly, the aforementioned Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required for consideration.

Points to Ponder with Free-Tuition Colleges: