What Is A Tuition Waiver And How Do I Get One?

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Ever wish you could just make your tuition disappear? It’s possible that you CAN! As college tuitions rise year by year, it’s important to know your options. In addition to the better understood and more widely known routes of scholarships, payment plans, and student loans, tuition waivers can literally make your tuition disappear, in part or in full.

What Is A Tuition Waiver?

A tuition waiver is not a student loan, nor is it a scholarship in a strict sense. Different from FAFSA awards or scholarships, which are earned for a particular situation or achievement, a tuition waiver is simply a justification for NOT paying tuition, or not paying all of your tuition. If you qualify, based on criteria determined by your school, you will simply be excused from paying. 

How To Qualify 

Tuition waivers are more common than you might think, although whether you qualify will vary by institution. Below, we explain some of the most common situations that would allow you to successfully qualify for a full or partial tuition waiver:

  • Financial need: Tuition waivers are granted to students who demonstrate a financial need, either because they have no parental assistance or because their parents’ income falls below a certain level. While the maximum household income level will vary from school to school, it is often 40 or 60 thousand dollars a year.
  • Employed by the school: More common for graduate students, if you are a full-time employee of the institution where you want to study, you can get subsidized or free tuition. A waiver is a common component of graduate students’ teaching compensation.
  • High achieving: If you are an exceptional student, you might qualify for a full or partial tuition waiver. Again, this will depend on your school, as well as how they assess your performance. A general rule is that to qualify for this, you need to be in the top 5-10% of your high school class, but if, for example, you come from an exceptionally small class, you might need to prove your exceptional abilities some other way. 
  • Difficult circumstances: If you have experienced exceptional adversity in your life, your school may waive some or all of your tuition. Some examples include coming from foster care, having a disability, or having been the victim of human trafficking.
  • Veteran or dependent on a veteran: Education support is a core component of military veterans’ compensation in the USA, and you can benefit from reduced or free tuition if you are a veteran, or dependent on a veteran.
  • Nontraditional student (i.e. older): Many schools offer older people (usually over 50 or 60 years of age) the opportunity to return to school at reduced or no tuition. These are often auditing programs, meaning you won’t earn a degree, but you will get a chance to expand your knowledge and take those courses you never got a chance to the first time around.
  • Native status: Tuition waivers for students registered with a federally recognized native nation are widely available to students across the U.S.
  • Pay in-state as an out-of-state student: If your dream school is a public state institution, but not within the borders of your home state, you may still qualify for in-state tuition through a merit-based tuition waiver.

How to Request A Tuition Waiver

In some cases, qualification for a tuition waiver will be automatic, based on information submitted in your application. But given that we are talking about significant sums of money here, you shouldn’t bank on that. Reach out to the relevant department at your school to ensure that your tuition waiver process is approved and under way. For example, if you qualify for a tuition waiver because you are employed by the school, reach out to your school’s employment office, or if you are making a case based on Native American status, reach out directly to the admissions office. Make sure you have read the fine print when it comes to your tuition waiver and whether you qualify—you don’t want to count on free or reduced tuition and then find out you are on the hook. 

Other Options To Help Afford College

If you find you don’t qualify for a tuition waiver, but you are concerned about being able to meet that steep tuition bill, there are other options out there to help you through. 

Scholarships

Even if you were unable to earn a merit-based scholarship through your school, you can look into scholarships that might cover a small portion of your tuition and are awarded for all kinds of merit, whether it’s for exceptional academics in a particular field, or above and beyond contribution to your community. Speak with your high school college counselor about what local and municipal scholarships might be available for you to seek. If you are unable to find a scholarship as you enter college, don’t give up the idea—there are often scholarships available to students who have already begun their undergraduate career through their undergraduate department of study, through community organizations, or even in centuries’ old school traditions. If you can cover some or all of even one year of your college tuition, that will significantly lessen the financial burden you face upon graduation.

FAFSA

If you are seeking any kind of financial aid to pay for your college tuition in the U.S., you will almost certainly need to go through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the process by which the state and federal government will determine if you qualify for government-sponsored aid, and some institutions use this same form to determine if you qualify for aid from your school. Even if you don’t qualify for any form of student financial aid, you could still qualify for a subsidized or unsubsidized loan, which, while still a sum you will have to pay back, will have a much fairer interest rate than you’ll generally get at the bank (around 5%).

Work While You Study

While you won’t be able to earn enough working part-time while studying full-time to pay your tuition, you can ease the burden of your loans and help cover your living costs while in college by working part-time. Whether by finding employment on your own, going through your school, or participating in the federal work-study program, you can subsidize some of your costs by earning while you study.

Many students don’t begin the college application process with a clear picture of how they will afford their tuition. It’s important to do your research! If you’d never heard of a tuition waiver before now, it is certainly worth looking into. Always check your target schools’ websites for their particular policies and procedures, and if you find yourself confused don’t hesitate to reach out to the school’s bursar, admissions office, or your own college advisors. It’s worth doing the due diligence on this, considering the amount of money involved.

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