While I was living in Texas in 2011, a presidential hopeful named Rick Perry – the governor of the state at the time – trumpeted an intriguing proposal during his State of the Union address: create a path to a college degree costing a measly $10,000 (see the articles in The Wall Street Journal and Texas Tribune). And yes, this number was to include textbooks. As a recent graduate with my master’s in educational administration (and as someone who knows the true cost of an education), I was intrigued. Was this really possible?

Is the $10,000 College Degree the BEST Option?

Although Rick Perry’s presidential aspirations ended in a trail of tears, his proposal for a cheap college degree did not. Two years after his challenge, Rick Perry announced not one, but thirteen ways to gain a degree at a seemingly impossible $10,000 price. At least in theory; at times this was accomplished by colleges through fuzzy math – or scholarships and grants – but at least the proposal encouraged thinking outside of the box. The practical nature of these routes are debatable (particularly for the masses). So what about everyone else, especially those outside of Texas? I will offer greater hope.

There are free or low cost ways to earn a college degree, you just may not want to take the path offered.

– Jason Anderson, CPA, CFP®

What are the free paths to a college degree?

Of course, you have the work hard and get an institutional scholarship route, but there are others beyond this traditional path. Here are a few options to a cheap or free degree:

  1. Work for an employer who will pay for it. Tuition assistance is no joke. Take UPS for example. UPS offers up to $25,000 tuition assistance to its employees. If you take the right path (i.e. you’re fine attending a lower-cost school instead of your favorite brand name), this means a free degree. This is a game changer for someone willing to work hard to climb the ladder. Another good program resides with Starbucks.
  2. Apply to hundreds of private scholarship opportunities. This requires preparation (academics) and positioning (making sure you’re involved in the right extracurricular opportunities) but this is a viable option outside of (or in addition to) institutional scholarships. A good local example of this is KC Scholars.
  3. Move to a state with fantastic scholarship programs. I’ll brag on my birth state, Missouri. For certain high school students, Missouri offers free community college or technical schooling through the A+ program. For those desiring a four-year bachelor’s degree, it’s as easy as transferring an associate’s degree to the four-year school of choice.
  4. Study abroad. I don’t just mean for one summer. Did you know Americans can study for free in select European countries? Here I come Germany…ready to join the 4,600 who have already figured this one out.
  5. Work for an institution of higher education. Many colleges and universities provide free or substantially discounted tuition for employees and/or their dependents. Some colleges even offer this benefit at other schools through a consortium. My two master’s degrees in business and education were free through this very benefit.
  6. Join the military. Although not a good fit for everyone, the various branches of the military offer exceptional opportunities for tuition assistance. Pathways in this category include ROTC, the national guard, and the GI Bill.
  7. Attend a work college. For more on this option, check out my post here.
  8. The two year to four year transfer. I realize this one isn’t free, but I had to include it here. Attending a two year college, gaining and associate degree, and then transferring to a four year college to finish up can substantially cut your overall cost of education. Better yet, transfer to a low cost online or satellite campus and watch the savings roll in.

Don’t ever let someone tell you that college is out of reach. Although you understand what they mean, you now know better.

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