According to the College Board, the average college tuition in the United States is $26,273, up more than 4% from last year. But not all universities cost that much, and not all cheap colleges give you junk degrees. Sprinkled across America you'll find some discount degrees that are actually worth just as much as the highest-priced ones.
Tuition at all of these colleges can be had for under $5,000 a year -- and a few are completely free. If your kid's in high school, now is the time to start thinking about how to afford their next big step. Start planning your applications now, because the competition is tight:
To view more than a dozen standup colleges that cost less than $5,000, click through our gallery.
In 1855, Berea was the first school in the South to admit both blacks and whites, men and women. It's still incredibly inclusive: Tuition is free. Like College of the Ozarks, a Christian college in Point Lookout, Missouri, Berea's mandate is to supply worthy rural kids with an academic opportunity and personal attention. The only catch is you'll be expected to work 10 to 15 hours a week someplace such as in a dorm or a kitchen. In other schools, that's a work-study job. Here, that time pays the whole bill.
Brigham Young University
Tuition at this university, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a mere $4,290, or just $2,145 for Mormons. But depending on your point of view, there could be a catch: Anyone who attends BYU had better be more interested in learning than partying. Every student, regardless of their religion, must sign an "honor code" promising (for starters) not to drink, smoke, or live with members of the opposite sex during their tenure. Some kids are scared off by the sober atmosphere, which means the students who do apply are much more likely to be accepted than by a school of a similar academic caliber. When corporations are hiring, they come here, because the students are perceived as upstanding and dedicated.
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
New York City, NY
Cooper Union, in Manhattan's East Village, may be the best bargain in America. Why? Because thanks to a huge endowment, tuition at this cream-of-the-crop institution is free for anyone lucky enough to be accepted. The workload is so heavy that students are pretty much always busy, but Cooper Union supplies some of the nation's finest programs in architecture, engineering, and fine arts. Get a degree here, and you can write your own ticket. There's history, too: The Great Hall (which, incidentally, is visible from WalletPop's newsroom) was where both the NAACP and the American Red Cross were founded.
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC
The oldest state university in the nation, it offers more than 50 majors and a nationally acclaimed curriculum. The Princeton Review has called its tuition for in-state residents "sinfully cheap." That's because it maxes out at $1,932.50 per semester for 12 hours or more of undergraduate classes, or $3,865 for a full academic year of two semesters. On paper, out-of-state residents don't get it nearly as good: $21,753. Fortunately, UNC's average financial aid package is high for a state school, so even out-of-staters end up getting a very good deal. If you don't qualify for the in-state price, you can spend your freshman year establishing residency (registering to vote, getting a driver's license, getting a job and paying taxes) so that from your sophomore year on, you'll save. Cooler yet, UNC's revolutionary "Carolina Covenant" program promises to eliminate all loans from student financial aid packages. If your parents' income is below a given threshold (usually, it's not far below the average American income), you qualify. Other universities, trying to get students out of post-school debt, have been adopting similar programs.
University of Virginia
Its endowment is worth nearly $4 billion, so applicants who qualify for aid are usually able to win a lot of it (an average of $12,400 per student per year). As one of the first colleges to offer financial aid, it's still leading the way, and its AccessUVA program promises to meet all of students' financial needs up to a surprisingly high level: $44,000 for a family of four. Like UNC Chapel Hill, UVA strives to keep needy students from ever having to take out loans at all, relying instead on grants and scholarships that don't need to be paid back, so graduates leave with debt in the extreme low ranks compared to all national universities. The catch is getting in on that windfall: Everyone needs a deal right now, and recession has pushed its acceptance rate down to 29%.
Rice's spectacular endowment -- $946,785 per student -- means that pretty much nobody pays the $31,430 annual tuition. The university pledges to meet 100% of a student's proven needs. Needless to say, that makes entry into Rice, known as a strong sciences school, as competitive as for any Ivy League institution, yet Rice isn't widely known outside the Houston area.
Deep Springs College
Inyo County, CA
It sounds hopelessly funky, but the track record of this place -- part college, part co-op -- is impressive. This tiny two-year college, located since 1916 on a working cattle and alfalfa farm in the desert on the California-Nevada border, admits just 13 males a year, who live communally with a strong spirit of brotherhood and self-governance. Students rarely leave campus, study nearly year-round, participate in group decision-making, and help run the farm (work-study positions include "dairy boy" and "student cowboy"). They also pay nothing -- no tuition, no room, no board. The bright, enterprising men who depart after two years are often snapped up by Ivy League schools with full rides.
University of Texas
Sure, it's a good school in a lively town, but it's also big in all the right ways. With undergraduate enrollment around 40,000, there's a good chance of getting in -- 50% of applicants are accepted. Those odds are more competitive than they were before the recession started, but they're still darn good. Since Texas has one of the biggest college endowments in America, there's plenty of aid to go around. Often, if an out-of-state student receives least $1,000 in academic scholarships from the university, he or she will become eligible to pay the in-state rate. That means fees of less than half what non-Texans pay. The downside? Classes are oversubscribed, so it's tough to graduate within four years.
Military service academies:
United States Military Academy
West Point, NY
United States Naval Academy
United States Air Force Academy
Air Force Academy, Colorado
United States Merchant Marine Academy
Kings Point, NY
United States Coast Guard Academy
New London, CT
Get a degree from West Point, and you can brag about it for the rest of your life, but you won't be paying it off for a single day. In return for a five-year service commitment to the military after graduation (these days, not such an enticement), students receive what might be America's finest public education for absolutely nothing. In fact, everyone (except students at the Merchant Marine Academy) gets an annual "salary" that covers books and sundries. Room and board are also taken care of, and the government even throws in perks such as free medical care and super-low rates on new car purchases. But it's harder to get into West Point than it is at Harvard, on-campus discipline is tougher than at BYU, and the informal initiation rituals are probably even more rigorous than the application process.
We visited College of the Ozarks to find out how the students work. Check out our video report:
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