How To Go to College for Free In 4 Easy Steps

By NEXT Staff on Monday, September 16, 2013

Higher education can be surprisingly affordable — even free. Follow our step-by-step plan to pay as little as possible for your degree.

Step 1: Fill out the FAFSA

Why? Why not? After all, it is called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Oh, and it’s your only shot for federal dollars like the Pell Grant, which offers up to $5,645 for 2013-14. The amount you get is based on demonstrated financial need, cost of attendance and enrollment status. There’s also the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant for students with the most financial need and range from $100-$4,000 per year. In either case, grant money you get is yours, free and clear.

When? As close to Jan. 1 of your senior year as possible, which means you’ll have to bug your parents to file their taxes ASAP since there’s a limited pool of grant and scholarship money and it’s first come, first served. Processing your application can take about six weeks, and you’ll have to reapply every year for federal aid and some state scholarships, so take notes of the process and have any important documents handy so you’ll be good to go next year.

Where? Get the application from your guidance counselor or online.

But what if I’m not eligible? There’s only one way to find out. Stop looking for excuses and apply.

Step 2: Apply for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship

Why? It’s a no-brainer — this is your shot at a chunk of money that can cover almost all tuition and fees for an entire academic year. Recipients headed to four-year schools in 2013-14 get $2,000 as a freshman and $1,000 more your sophomore, junior and senior years — that’s $5,000 total. Students at community colleges can receive $2,000 per year, up to two years. Keep up those grades and you can ride this money train all the way to graduation.

When? The deadline is June 1 of your senior year. P.S. You have to have filed your FAFSA to be eligible.

Where? Click here and fill out the questionnaire. Once you finish, several scholarships you’re eligible for will display, and if the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship is among them, just click the account creation button and follow the prompts.

Step 3: Apply for scholarships from your college of choice

Why? Alumni who made it big often give money back to the program they graduated from so younger generations can have the same opportunity. And guess what? They might not have had a perfect GPA when they were your age. Put some feeling into the personal essay (if one is required) and maybe they’ll see something in you that they think is scholarship-worthy.

When? Often, the deadline for application is in the fall of your senior year.

Where? Ask your admissions counselor – or anyone in your college’s admissions or financial aid office – how to apply.

But what if I haven’t chosen a major? Many colleges have scholarships available to students no matter what their major is. In some cases, though, you’ve got a shot at a bigger pool of money if you go ahead and declare. If that’s the case (ask your admissions counselor), consider making a decision. You can always change your major later on.

Step 4: Search & apply for other scholarships

Why? There are lots of scholarships available for different areas of study and different kinds of students. Some may be small, but they add up! Since they’re free money, you should apply for as many as possible.

When? Deadlines vary, so check with your guidance counselor. Here’s a tip: Put all the application deadlines on the same calendar so you don’t forget any.

Where? Your guidance counselor will be able to point you in the direction of any local scholarships. Check out scholarships given by businesses, and ask your parents if their workplace offers any financial aid for children of employees. Sites like,, and are all great places to look for even more free money. Tip: When you start looking at listings, make sure you’re checking out a reputable source. Real scholarship applications don’t have fees attached!

But what if I don’t have time to apply in between homework, extracurricular activities and everything else I’m busy with? Do it anyway — it will help prepare you for your busy days as college student, and you’ll thank yourself later when you graduate with a free (or almost free) degree.


You don’t have to be a high school senior to fill out the FAFSA — or at least not to get ready for it. If you’re not ready for the real thing, there’s a great tool to find out how much you should expect to pay for college so you can start planning before January of your senior year when you’ll fill out the form for real. Click here and fill out the form. You might want to have Mom or Dad handy to answer questions about their income and taxes.