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By Derek Newton
December 31, 2020
Mark Wang for Money

Facing economic instability and comparatively high unemployment, millions of Americans are considering their career plans from a fresh lens, including the possibility of starting or continuing college.

That’s a good option because, as researcher Doug Webber of Temple University has written, “the financial returns to graduating from a four-year college far outweigh any costs for the average student.” Over a lifetime of work, Webber estimates that having a bachelor's degree works out to earning about $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate.

But what about those costs? Isn’t college expensive?

The answer is that it does not have to be. In some cases, going to college can actually be free — or surprisingly inexpensive.

Attending college for free starts by filling out the FAFSA. That’s the form that schools and the government use to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible to receive, which is the baseline of determining what college will actually cost you personally. There’s no risk, no obligation and no cost to fill out the form.

Before you start, you should also be sure you can graduate. Calculate how long it should take you to complete the programs you’re considering and what the total costs would be. That’s important because the benefits of college generally start paying off only after graduation, so paying for just part of a degree may not be a good investment. Finally, pay close attention to the type of school and the outcomes of previous students. Most college programs can provide real earnings boosts, but some never do. Generally, public schools are the best financial bets, followed by non-profit colleges.

If the benefits of a college degree seem like they may make sense while working from home (or not working at all), here are three places to get started for little, or even no, money.

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Free Community College

Public community colleges are outstanding educational values with affordable tuition rates. But many also offer degree programs that are literally free. Michelle Miller Adams, who’s researched free college programs nationwide, counts between 200 and 400 free programs at local colleges with varying eligibility requirements. Most are run at the state, city or even college level, she says, which means they may only be available to specific state residents or people in specific academic programs.

Tennessee and some cities in Michigan, for example, have highly regarded free community college programs. But with hundreds around the country, there are programs in nearly every state. You can look at what's available near you with this state-by-state list of free programs from College Promise, an initiative that advocates for two or more years of free college.

But don’t rely on those lists exclusively or even on a college’s website when researching your options. Call your local community college, or the two or three closest to you. (With online options, the community college that is nearest to you may not be the best for you financially.)

Ask for the admissions office or the financial services office if it exists. Make an appointment to talk with an admissions counselor. Then explain what you’re trying to do and ask them specifically about options for going to college for free. Say, for example, “I understand it may be possible to go to college here for free. How can I do that?” Even if a school does not have a specific “free” program, the aid you may be eligible for through the FAFSA is frequently more than the regular tuition price at community colleges anyway, making it free in the end.

Take and Transfer Core Classes

Just about anywhere you go to college, you’ll take the same starting, core, or base classes as everyone else. Fortunately, there’s a way to take many of those standard classes online very inexpensively.

StraighterLine offers core college classes online for just $59 each, plus a monthly fee. They guarantee those classes will transfer to and be fully accepted at more than 130 colleges. Plus, more than 2,000 schools have taken at least some of their course credits. StraighterLine can help you check whether the colleges you’re looking at may take their credits ahead of time. But schools guaranteeing to accept full transfer of their credits include small non-profits such as Lynn University in South Florida and big public schools such as Purdue University Global and University of Maryland Global.

The courses are specifically designed for working adults at any stage of their college degree, whether they’re just starting, or re-starting, or picking up the final courses that they need to graduate, says Amy Smith, chief learning officer at StraighterLine. “Considering that most students complete a course in four to six weeks, that makes the investment really low-risk,” she says.

More than 250,000 students have used the service since 2008 and more than 97% of students who signed up earned college credit, the company says. Considering that it’s online and open 24/7, it can be a fast and inexpensive way to jump start a college degree. There are also scholarships available to lower the $59-per course fee. And because going to college online may not be for everyone, they offer a free trial so you can test it out first.

Competency-Based Learning

Competency-based learning (CBL) allows college students with life or career experience to earn college credit based on what they already know. It can be a major shortcut to a college degree.

Western Governors University (WGU) is one of the largest providers of CBL. It is a fully accredited, online college where base tuition is already about half the national average. But the savings can be even more substantial because WGU does not charge by the course. Instead, tuition is set by block of time, in six month increments. It’s the same cost whether you take one class in six months or 15.

“Our competency-based design allows students to move through material at their own pace, and our subscription-based pricing model means that students can progress as quickly as they desire without paying more,” says Bob Collins, vice president for financial aid at WGU.

In other words, if you have the time and motivation you can get from start to finish very quickly. That time savings, plus the ability to get credit for what you know already, can significantly cut down the cost of a degree. Moreover, like most accredited universities, WGU offers scholarships and federal financial aid through the FAFSA, which could reduce your out-of-pocket cost to nothing.

Going to and finishing college is an outstanding investment. But most people overlook that, if you do it right, college does not have to be much of an actual financial investment at all.

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