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5 Ways to Get Your Online College Degree for Free

Smart (and Somewhat Unorthodox) Ways to Graduate Without Paying a Dime

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These tips can help you save on your online college expenses.

Lew Robertson - Brand X Pictures / StockByte / Getty Images

Want to earn your online college degree for free? Here are five legitimate (albeit sometimes unorthodox) ways to graduate without paying a dime.

1. Be Poor. Here’s the weird thing about college: it will be easier for you to afford your tuition bills if you are rich or if you are poor. Wealthy families tend to have college savings accounts or the ability to simply write a check when tuition is due. Low-income students can qualify for a number of scholarships and grants that often cover the entire cost of an education – and don’t need to be paid back. The problem is the “income gap zone.” Many students come from families that can’t or won’t help with education and don’t make enough to fund the costs themselves. However, if these students (or their families) are making over the federal threshold, they won’t qualify for grants. Instead, they’ll be paying off student loans for the next decade.

You may not be able to control your family’s contribution. If you are considered a “dependent student,” their income will be considered when filling out your FAFSA form. However, once you become an “independent student” (by turning 24, getting married, being a veteran, etc.), your own income is the deciding factor. If you’re making enough through your day job, it will probably make sense to pay off what you can and take out loans when you need them. But, if you fall into the “income gap zone,” it might actually make more sense for you to work less so that you qualify for the grants that you need rather than working tirelessly, taking classes, and still paying off high interest student loans.

Take a look at some of these programs for low-income students:

2. Join the military. The military has multiple programs that can help students cover college costs. Online programs are a particularly smart choice for service members that may move around or be deployed over the 4-year span it usually takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The amount that you are entitled to as a service member will depend on the number of years you commit to. You will also be expected to pass your classes. For some potential military members, it might make more sense to earn a bachelor’s degree first, join the military as an officer (with a better rank and higher pay), and then earn an online master’s degree.

Here are some military tuition programs that might work for you:

3. Pledge your service. If you’re willing to commit to serving your country in other ways, you may also be able to get a degree for free. In particular, the federal government offers programs for potential teachers in low-income schools. Commit to teaching a needed subject (i.e. math) in a challenging school for a certain number of years, and you may qualify for loan cancellations. Alternatively, serving in the Peace Corps after graduation can give you hands-on experience as well as the opportunity to cancel some or all of your Perkins loans.

Serving abroad or in low-income schools can be worthwhile ways to give back. But, they aren’t the right choice for everyone. Do your research and make sure that your post-grad plans are reasonable for you before signing away your time…or you may find yourself deciding between staying in a bad situation or paying back a significant amount of money.

Check out these service options:

4. Convince Your Employer. So, you’re a valuable employee, you know your stuff, and your employer has big plans for you to stick around after donning your cap and gown? Then, consider asking for employee tuition reimbursement as a perk of the job. Many larger employers (including Starbucks) offer standardized tuition assistance, but smaller employers are often willing to negotiate. In order to make a convincing case, you may need to demonstrate your long-term value or sign a contract to stick with the company for a certain amount of time after earning your degree.

Take a look at some persuasive strategies here:

5. Crowdsource It. Here’s a less conventional way to get your degree for free: ask your friends and family for money. Crowdfunding programs allow users to tell their story, share their goal, and take donations. Browse any funding website and you’ll likely find hundreds of posts from students that are asking for help with tuition costs. You may not have a wealthy great aunt willing to cut you a check. But, if you hang around a particularly generous (and large) crowd, you may be able to make the money you need twenty bucks at a time.

Carefully review the requirements and fees involved with crowdfunding programs; you don’t want the site to take too much of your incoming cash. If you’re lucky enough to garner the support you need, make sure to write those thank you cards.

Check these crowdfunding sites out to get started:

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