This is a subject I’ve written about before on the Saverocity Forum, but now that I’ve got this whole finance blog I can share it with a bigger, smaller, or at least different audience than regular Forum visitors.
Anyone can get a tuition-free higher education in the United States. I’m going to show you how, and tell you why you won’t believe me, even after I spell it out for you.
Identify colleges and universities that accept only the FAFSA
There are two primary sets of documents prospective college students complete in order to determine their eligibility for financial aid:
- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a form developed by the federal government to establish eligibility for federal student aid programs;
- the CollegeBoard CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is a private application used by some colleges and universities to establish eligibility for institutional financial aid.
In order to receive federal or institutional financial aid, all colleges and universities require students to fill out the FAFSA. A subset of those colleges and universities require students to complete the PROFILE in order to be eligible for institutional aid.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of a comprehensive list of colleges and universities that don’t require the PROFILE. However, CollegeBoard does helpfully provide a list of colleges and universities that do require it.
Your goal in this step is to identify colleges and universities that you’re interested in attending that are not on that CollegeBoard list of PROFILE institutions.
Select institutions that promise to meet full demonstrated financial need
Once you’ve identified a group of colleges and universities that accept only the FAFSA, and don’t require the PROFILE, visit the financial aid website of each institution to determine whether and how they promise to meet the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students. You can usually find this promise advertised fairly prominently, and additional details about how it works, for example on Harvard’s financial aid website.
Establish residency (optional)
If you’ve selected a public college or university to attend, you’ll likely need to establish in-state residency in order to take advantage of in-state tuition and any financial aid guarantee. This typically takes a year or more of living and working in the state without taking classes, in order to prove that you didn’t move to the state exclusively to establish residency for education purposes. By way of example, here are the residency requirements for the University of California system.
In order to establish independence for purposes of federal student aid, you have to answer yes to one of the following questions:
- Will you be 24 or older by Dec. 31 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid?
- Will you be working toward a master’s or doctorate degree?
- Are you married or separated but not divorced?
- Do you have children who receive more than half of their support from you?
- Do you have dependents (other than children or a spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you?
- At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?
- Are you an emancipated minor or are you in a legal guardianship as determined by a court?
- Are you an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
- Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?
- Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?
Establishing independence is key to tuition-free higher education because once the FAFSA has determined you are independent, it does not require any financial information from your parents.
If Tagg Romney waited to turn 24 before going to college he could have applied for financial aid from the University of Utah without submitting any information about his dad’s income or assets (he went to BYU instead, which also doesn’t require the PROFILE, although they may have their own financial aid forms).
Take out only federal student loans
Federal student loans, besides their attractive interest rates, allow you to repay them using “income-based repayment,” which caps your monthly payments at a certain percentage of your disposable income, and allows you to discharge the loans after 20 years of repayment (10 years if you work in the public sector).
This ensures that whatever career you embark on after college, you’ll never be financially crippled by student loan payments, no matter how much you borrow — as long as you borrow exclusively from the federal government.
Every story you have read in the past 10 years about people being hobbled by their student loans is a story about someone who didn’t follow this one simple rule.
There is no crisis of college affordability
Public higher education for those of limited means in the United States is very reasonably priced. It’s heavily subsidized by taxpayers, alumni, and endowment income, and it’s sold far below cost. By following the steps in this post you can make it even more reasonably priced by excluding your parent’s income and assets from your financial need calculation.
The crisis of higher education affordability is one of class anxiety and economic insecurity. Parents, even parents who themselves may not have graduated from college, understand perfectly well that higher education is an essential class identifier and the surest path to a semblance of economic security.
I can find no more telling indicator of this than the polls we’ve been bombarded with by the news media for the past two years in which “working class” was a shorthand reference to adults without a college degree — regardless of their income or profession! In this world your humble blogger is “middle class” while a unionized UPS driver making $70,000 a year is “working class,” just because he didn’t graduate from college.
And that is why you will not wait until you establish independence before attending college and why you’ll pressure your kids to attend college immediately after high school or, at most, after taking a “gap year” doing something expensive. The fact is you’re much more anxious about how your peers and your children’s peers will view the decision to put off college than you are about the cost of college.
We can fix that crisis, but only by creating a society and economy of plenty, where the desperate struggle for middle-class respectability and a semblance of economic security doesn’t shape every decision we make. Until then, nothing in this post will be of the slightest help to you.