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Tuition Waivers and 10 More Surprising Ways to Score a College Discount

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Content was accurate at the time of publication.

Here’s a dose of sticker shock: Annual in-state tuition at a four-year public university averages $9,410, according to the College Board — $23,890 for out-of-state students and $32,410 at private colleges.

It’s easy to resign ourselves to the notion that tuition costs are full price, set in stone, non-negotiable and unavoidable — and that may be exactly the big myth higher-education institutions want us to keep believing.

The fact is that there are several lesser-known and surprising ways to get a discount, starting with — but certainly not limited to — partial and full tuition waivers.

What a tuition waiver does

Whereas scholarships, grants and other financial aid for college help you cover some of your school’s cost of attendance, a tuition waiver actually diminishes it.

For instance, a school costing $15,000 that offers you a $5,000 tuition waiver is now only asking you to come up with only $10,000 worth of other financial aid. (For the waiver to be that valuable, however, it must be tax-free, which you can confirm with your school’s financial aid office.)

Schools are the primary source of partial and, sometimes, full tuition waivers for students with special extenuating circumstances, including:

Low Income
  • Texas A&M University, for example, offers a non-resident tuition waiver to high-performing students with need.
  • Don’t forget that low income levels could also qualify you for federal grants, work-study and subsidized student loans.
  • If you or your family have faced economic or other types of hardship (like surviving a natural disaster), you may qualify for a tuition waiver at schools in select states.
  • Descendants of victims involved in the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, qualify for in-state free tuition at public schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Native Status
  • Schools in states across the country offer full or partial tuition waivers to students who identify as Native American or belong to a tribe acknowledged by the U.S. government.
Cultural Diversity
  • Seeking a multi-racial student body, schools like North Dakota State University provide cultural diversity tuition waivers, with preference given to students who have a high level of financial need or are the first in their family to attend college.
Adoption/foster child eligibility
  • Students who were adopted or have lived in foster care may also be eligible for a tuition waiver at certain in-state public schools.
  • Other outside groups, like Foster Care to Success and the National Foster Parent Association, also offer some financial aid.
Non-traditional Students
  • Tuition waivers are also typically available for graduate, international and non-traditional students, such as senior citizens and other adults returning to college.
  • At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, international students can receive a tuition waiver to cover the non-resident portion of their costs.
  • And in Virginia, seniors aged 60 and above with taxable income of $15,000 or below could receive $1,276 in financial aid.
Field of study
  • High-demand majors are especially likely to attract tuition waivers. STEM degree-seekers in New York, for example, could receive up to a full tuition waiver via the state’s higher education authority.
  • Students with disabilities could receive tuition waivers at schools like the University of Maryland if they receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.
Employment status
  • Working in the public sector may be enough to grant you a tuition waiver. That’s the case at Florida State University in Tallahassee, for example.
  • Other schools have tuition waiver programs for members of service-oriented organizations, including the military and the Peace Corps.
  • Likewise, if you’re out of work due to economic, health or other reasons, inquire if your school offers a discount on school fees. It may vary according to school and by the amount you may receive off your bill.

How to get a tuition waiver

Like federal grants and student loans as well as institutional scholarships, tuition waivers often appear on the financial aid award letter delivered by your school. The college or university has pulled information from your Free Application for Federal Student Aid and application materials to pre-determine your eligibility.

In other cases, you might be eligible for a tuition waiver because of your background, upbringing or perhaps military service. If you think you fall into one of the categories (see chart, above) but haven’t yet been offered a tuition waiver, contact your school’s financial aid office and ask about its resources.

If your college or university awards tuition waivers in certain cases, you might need to file an application and provide supporting documentation to be considered for it.

Beyond tuition waivers: 10 more ways to discount college costs

Tuition waivers are great, but they’re not accessible for all college students. Even when available, they might not cover your tuition shortfall. In either case, look for discounts on school fees with the following 10 strategies.

1. Attend a tuition-free or lower-cost school

Attending a tuition-free college could reap the most savings. But nothing is ever really free: For most of the tuition-free colleges and universities, students will need to pay for room and board, and to compensate for the lack of tuition, you’ll need to fulfill certain obligations.

Students at the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, for example, are required to work on campus for 15 hours a week and full-time during breaks. Other programs include Kentucky’s Berea College, which admits students based on economic need, and the scholarship-driven Webb Institute in New York. There are also free tuition programs at Ivy League and other prestigious colleges.

You could potentially save even more by going the community college route. By attending a two-year school in your own backyard, you could limit your expenses before transferring to a pricier four-year college. At the very least, consider attending “no student loans colleges” that won’t cause you to rack up debt for your degree.

2. Consider establishing residency to score an in-state tuition rate

If your heart’s set on a far-away school with a higher price tag, explore the possibility of establishing residency in your school’s state. If you’re successful, you could chop your tuition charge by more than half.

Establishing residency for the sake of a lower tuition bill, however, is no easy task. Taking a gap year to get set up and cutting ties with your home state are among the pros and cons.

3. Work at your school

Finding a paid internship or school-subsidized or federal work-study program are some common ways to offset your tuition.

Another option: Become an employee at one of your prospective school’s departments before you attend, and your school may waive your tuition if you begin attending as a student. Oftentimes, the spouse, child, sibling or grandchild of a university employee may also qualify.

At Chapman University in California, for example, there are discounts on school fees available for part- and full-time employees. If you’re not already enrolled, check with the schools on your college list to see which, if any, provide on-campus jobs that could lead to reduced tuition rates.

4. Receive a military discount

If you’re an honorably discharged member of the U.S. Armed Forces, your GI Bill benefits will pay your full public school tuition after you’ve ended your military service.

For students attending either private or international schools during the 2019-2020 academic year, the tuition limit is up to $24,477.

5. Inquire about different tuition payment plans

Check with your prospective school’s financial aid office to see if a flexible or alternate tuition payment plan could deliver a price-drop on your tuition.

Like paying any other bill, signing up for automatic debit via your checking account may come with some sort of tuition reduction. Other schools may grant students a discount for paying their entire tuition in full, in advance or on other various proprietary payment plans.

6. Apply for regional exchange programs

Study abroad programs won’t save you money, but a regional tuition exchange program might — it allows students to qualify for in-state tuition rates at select (usually neighboring) out-of-state schools. This not only saves you money on tuition, but it also can broaden the scope of schools you’d like to attend without the trouble of proving residence in that state.

The Western Undergraduate Exchange and Midwest Student Exchange programs pay up to 150% of resident tuition, for example. You’ll want to seek out the program that serves your region: The Academic Common Market covers many states in the south, the New England Regional Student Program serves New England and so forth.

7. Look into legacy student status

Have an older sibling, parent or grandparent whose alma mater is your current school? Relatives of school alumni may qualify for discounts on school fees.

Eligible students at Southern Illinois University, for example, pay 80% of the original cost for freshmen or transfer students.

8. Attend school off-season

One way to save money on college costs is to attend classes during summer vacation and get some credits out of the way, lessening the amount of time you spend in college.

Enroll during those off-peak times and you could get a discount. Indiana University, for example, has historically offered a significant discount for taking courses in the summer versus during regular fall or spring semesters.

9. Negotiate your financial aid package

Like asking for better auto insurance rates, credit card APRs or monthly rent, you can negotiate your financial aid package.

Even when you’re still in the application process, don’t be afraid to contact school financial aid offices. Tell them you’re actively interested in becoming a student at their school, but you’d need to reduce the amount of expenses entailed with attending.

It’s imperative to emphasize and sell your academic accomplishments so far, just as you would in a job interview. You’d make a great asset to the student body on campus, you might tell them, which could make them more likely to grant you a reprieve.

If you’ve been accepted to public and private schools, ask the private college if it’d be possible to bring down their rates closer to the public school level. Just keep in mind that there are typically only certain reasons you can negotiate financial aid.

10. Ask your employer for tuition reimbursement

Tuition waivers and reimbursements are often confused. Waivers decrease the cost of tuition, and reimbursements pay you back for the standard sticker price.

Also, unlike waivers, reimbursements are most commonly found via employers. Like companies that help pay off student loans, there are other organizations that will reimburse you for part or all of your current tuition costs, particularly if your education will make you a more valuable employee.

Talk to your boss or human resources department about its tuition reimbursement program. If it doesn’t have one, you might scour job listings for employers that do offer this tuition-cutting support.

If these strategies, plus tuition waivers, aren’t enough, review more ways to pay for college.

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