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One check I hate writing every month is for my student loan: I owe $20,000, and that debt isn’t getting smaller any time soon. What I hate most about this whole situation is that if I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have this huge debt hanging over my head. But you can learn from my mistake: you can go to college for free.

I know of two colleges in existence that are completely tuition-free: the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, MO, and Berea College in Berea, KY. At the College of the Ozarks, students are required to work, but in return receive free tuition with the possibility of free room, board, and books, depending upon financial need. At Berea, students are responsible for room and board, books and supplies, and fees, which, for most students, are covered by grants, other scholarships, and part-time jobs. There is one catch, though: 80% of the student body must come from the Appalachian region.

Another way to get a free college education is if you, your spouse, or your parent works at the college you attend, such as the University of Miami and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. While this might not be a viable option for most recent high school graduates, some “mature” students may be able to take advantage of such opportunities. And if nothing else, maybe you can talk Mom or Dad into getting a job at the college of your choice. That would take care of your room and board, too.

One of the keys to getting a free education is remembering that time is money. The less time you have to spend in college, the less it will cost you. There are three ways to spend less time in college. The first is through a credit for prior learning program.

Many universities and community colleges award credit for prior learning—essentially free credit for life experiences, such as jobs, community service, travel, hobbies, and seminars or workshops. I once tutored a student at the University of Illinois at Springfield who received three credits (equal to one class) for writing an essay about his experiences as a pilot.

It may not seem like much, but every little bit helps. If you’ve been out in the world for awhile before entering college, you might want to investigate this option. Who knows…it could shave some time—and money-- off of your college career.

Similar to the credit for prior learning program are the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, which offer adult students the opportunity to complete their college degrees faster by getting credit for what they already know. You can take up to thirty-four different tests (which cost about $44 each—still cheaper than classes. Check with a college’s registrar’s office for more information.
Want to save an entire year’s worth of tuition, room, board, books, and fees? Take Advanced Placement (AP) courses while still in high school.

Upon completion of the AP courses, which are geared towards smart, college-bound students, you are encouraged to take the nationally administered examinations offered each May. If you score a 3-5 on this examination, you may receive credit hours and/or college placement, thus making it possible to enter college at or near sophomore status. Check with your school counselor or college admissions office.

None of this appeals to you? Join the National Guard. The Army National Guard participates in federal education benefit programs, including one that provides 75% of college tuition costs. As a soldier (even a Weekend Warrior) you can use the GI Bill to pay for some classes, and the 75% tuition assistance program for other classes. National Guard units can provide more information.

So the secret’s out: college doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. You can get a free or a very cheap quality college education…if you know how to go about it. And now you do.