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College at no cost might seem like a pipe dream, but it really does exist — even at the Ivy League level. If your family meets the income requirements for need-based aid, you could get free tuition at an Ivy League institution or other big-name school. This means a stellar education for you, without worrying about deep student loan debt.
Here are some of the Ivy League colleges that offer needs-based free undergraduate tuition packages:
- Princeton University
- Harvard University
- Columbia University
- Yale University
- Brown University
- Cornell University
- Dartmouth College
- The University of Pennsylvania
And here are some other prestigious schools that do the same:
Keep in mind, though, that free tuition does not mean you won’t need to pay anything toward the cost of college. Even when tuition, room and board and fees are all covered, there may be unbilled expenses you’ll need to manage, and some colleges will expect an annual student contribution as well.
Ivy League schools that offer free tuition programs
Princeton, located in Princeton, N.J., was awarded the top spot for national universities in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 Best College Rankings. But going to such an excellent school does not come cheap — the estimated cost of attendance for 2020-21 is just over $75,000, including room, board and fees.
However, if families make $65,000 or less annually, they can expect free tuition, room and board and fees for their incoming Princeton student.
And this generous needs-based aid continues — even for families that make more than $250,000 per year — based on individual needs. For instance, a family making between $65,000 and $85,000 may expect to have full tuition and fees paid, and to pay just 25% toward room and board. And even for families with an income above $250,000, the average grant covers 49% of tuition for those who have at least two children in college.
Harvard, based in Cambridge, Mass., is an elite school that’s regularly ranked in the top three of American universities. With its academic rigor and stellar reputation, graduating from Harvard may be a gateway to a successful career.
However, that reputation also means Harvard is expensive: For undergrads, the cost of tuition, room and board and fees for two terms in the 2019-20 school year was just about $70,000 ($69,607), while the estimated cost for the 2020-21 year is listed at over $72,000 ($72,391). That price tag might make it seem like going to school there is beyond the reach of most people. However, there are options depending on your financial situation.
Harvard does have a robust financial aid program. Just like Princeton, if your family makes less than $65,000 a year, you can get a free college education, along with room, board and fees. Families with incomes between $65,000 and $150,000 are expected to contribute between 0% and 10% of their income toward a child’s education.
According to the university, 20% of families pay nothing for their child to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the world, and 55% receive needs-based scholarships.
Getting into Columbia, located in New York City, is a big achievement, and its passionate alumni network can help you later on in your career.
Columbia comes with a big price tag — as of the 2019-20 school year, tuition alone was just under $59,000 per year. But if your family makes under $60,000 a year, Columbia will cover the total cost of your tuition, room, board and fees.
Families with incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 may also contribute a reduced amount toward their child’s education.
Yale, located on over 300 acres in New Haven, Conn., also offers generous needs-based packages. According to its website, families whose gross income is less than $75,000 should expect to contribute a big, fat $0 toward their child’s education — and that’s a big difference from Yale’s estimated 2020-21 price tag of just under $75,000, including tuition, room and board.
Yale also offers aid for students whose families earn up to $200,000 per year. Those making between $75,000 and $200,000 will contribute a percentage of their income, based on a sliding scale that begins at 1% and goes up to 20%. Plus, the institution claims that even some families making over $200,000 per year could still be eligible to receive aid.
Brown, located in Providence, R.I., has an expected price tag of $76,500 for the 2020-21 academic year, including tuition, room and board and school fees. However, if you are considered a “highest-need” student — meaning your family has an income of less than $60,000 per year and assets totaling less than $100,000 — you can expect to have your tuition, fees and room and board paid for.
Brown says that 97% of families making under $60,000 have applied for and received the needs-based scholarship, and also offers aid for families making up to $200,000 per year. Brown says some families with over $200,000 per year in income received needs-based scholarships; most of those eligible have multiple children in college.
Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell notes on its website that, over the past 20 years, the school has tripled its annual spending on grant aid. Families making less than $60,000, and with total assets of less than $100,000 (including primary home equity), can expect to pay nothing toward their child’s education there.
This means a savings of over $75,000 per expected 2020-21 tuition, room and board and fees for students at the endowed colleges. Cornell also has state contract colleges, with a lower expected tuition of $39,244 for New York state residents.
Dartmouth, based in Hanover, N.H., offers free tuition for any student whose family makes less than $100,000 per year and has typical assets for their income. The school’s website notes that families receiving aid may choose to take out loans to help with additional costs, and some students receiving aid are expected to contribute $1,000 to $3,000 per year, which should come from so-called leave-term earnings (those made when the student isn’t enrolled in classes).
For the 2020-21 academic years, tuition, room and board is expected to be approximately $76,000 per year.
Families earning above $100,000 may also be eligible for aid, depending on their unique situation.
Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania, often referred to simply as “Penn,” offers students whose families earn less than $65,500 — and have typical assets — aid packages that include tuition, room and board and fees. Aid packages for such families may also include benefits such as funds for a laptop and summer opportunities.
Students with family incomes between $65,500 and $140,000 can receive aid packages that cover at least the cost of tuition, while those whose families make over $140,000 may be eligible for aid packages for more than half the cost of tuition.
That tuition for the 2020-21 year is expected to be $53,166, along with $11,014 for housing, $5,770 for dining and $6,876 for fees.
The average net cost to students who receive aid has decreased by 23% since 2005, according to Penn’s website.
3 other top schools that offer free tuition programs
Located in Silicon Valley , Stanford, located in Stanford, Calif. — near Palo Alto and just 35 miles south of San Francisco — is often referred to as the “Ivy of the West.” And like the Ivy League schools on our list, Stanford offers free tuition to eligible students.
Beginning in the 2020-21 academic year, Stanford will offer free tuition to students whose families make less than $150,000 per year — this is up from $125,000. If families earn below $65,000, room and board will be covered as well. Stanford notes that students receiving needs-based aid are expected to contribute $5,000 per year in work and summer earnings toward attendance costs.
Along with Harvard, MIT is based in Cambridge, Mass. It’s one of the most elite schools in the world, and offers free tuition for students whose families make less than $90,000 per year.
With over 66,000 students, Texas A&M, in College Station, Texas, is one of the largest schools in the country — and it’s also been recognized by Money magazine as one of the nation’s best-value schools.
To help low- and middle-income students attend, Texas A&M launched the Aggie Assurance program. Under this initiative, the school covers the tuition cost for students with an annual family income under $60,000. To be eligible, you must be a Texas resident who’s enrolled full time.
Note that the program only covers the cost of tuition; it doesn’t pay for room, board or other fees. However, you might qualify for other grants or scholarships to cover those expenses.
Choosing the right school for you
The schools noted above are just a sampling of those who offer to cover tuition and other expenses based on need. These free tuition programs are also just one way you can deal with the high cost of tuition, so you won’t have to graduate school buried in student loans.
If you’re not sure where you want to go to school and are worried about affordability, evaluate factors such as cost, reputation and financial aid offerings to pick the best choice for you.
If money is one of the main things on your mind when it comes to college, you can reference our guide to paying for college and how tuition works.
Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report
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