Tuition waivers are becoming more and more of a necessity for students. The costs of going to college are at an all-time high with little sign that increases will abate. Americans are repaying $1.4 trillion in student loans. Tuition and fees for an average non-profit private four-year college were $34,740 in the 2017-2018 school year. That’s a 65% increase from 20 years ago. Add room and board onto that, and you are looking at $46,950. For public four-year colleges, the average today is $9,970 for tuition and fees and $20,770 if you add room and board. Tuition for graduate students tends to run much higher. For example, at Cornell, tuition for an MS Information Systems is $52,612 per year. An MS for Advanced Architecture Design is $$78,918 for 12 months.
The good news is that you don’t have to pin your hopes on a coveted athletic or academic scholarship to afford college. There are other ways, and seeking a full or partial tuition waiver is primary among them. When a university grants a tuition waiver, they let the student attend while paying only part of their tuition or sometimes none at all. However, the students must meet specific criteria to qualify.
Qualifications for Tuition Waivers
Types of tuition waivers vary drastically from school to school. Here are some of the most common.
If you don’t have enough money for college, you can apply for a federal student aid (FAFSA) and federal grants called Pell grants. Unfortunately, this assistance is not enough to cover all tuition costs today. To help with the rest, some universities automatically grant free or partial tuition waivers to students from families that earn below a specified level (often below $40,000 or $60,000). Harvard, Cornell, Columbia and Texas A&M all are examples of schools that offer tuition waivers for undergraduate students from families with lower incomes. There are many more.
Diversity Tuition Waiver
Some schools offer tuition waivers to increase diversity on campus and to help historically disadvantaged groups. In Michigan, students who are at least ¼ Native American and from a federally recognized tribe may attend any public state two-year or four-year state university without paying tuition. Montana waives tuition for Native American students with ¼ Indian blood who have received a FAFSA needs-based grant. Additional financial help is available through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the American Indian College Fund. If you are of Native American heritage or a member of any minority group, be sure to check if you are eligible for a tuition waiver at schools you are considering.
If you have been unemployed for years or were part of a mass layoff, be aware that the public schools in some states such as New Jersey offer tuition waivers.
If you were either adopted or in foster care, tuition waivers at public universities are available in many states. Also, a student who was in foster care after turning 13 is considered an “independent student” when applying for FAFSA. This means only the income of the student is considered, not the income of a parent or guardian. Independent students, therefore, have increased eligibility for more federal aid.
If you have had to fight specific types of adversity, you may be eligible for a tuition waiver at public schools in some states or at specific schools. For example, Minnesota State provides tuition waivers to students who have survived a natural disaster. Michigan has a Tuition Incentive Program (TIP) for students who meet a Medicaid eligibility history requirement.
For senior citizens who want to go to school and take those courses they never got around to studying, many schools offer tuition waivers though these are often audit programs. Examples are UCLA’s audit program for adults 50 and over and the University of South Florida’s program for adults 60 and over.
Tuition waivers are often available for veterans and active military personnel. For example, the University of Washington offers tuition waivers to veterans. Also, the state of Connecticut waives tuition for qualified veterans attending public colleges and universities. Such waivers are not the same as GI benefits offered by the federal government.
It is easier to get a tuition waiver if you are a resident of the United States, but there are some waivers available for international students who meet certain criteria. Criteria typically include need, academic record, length of attendance and type of visa. The University of Washington offers tuition waivers to international students who are part of an exchange program that promotes creating international opportunities for Washington residents. The University of Texas at Austin will waive the nonresident portion of its tuition to qualified international students.
Graduate Tuition Waiver or Government Job
Graduate students who are not in a professional program such as law or medicine rarely pay tuition, and many receive teaching or research stipends. Virtually all PhD. students receive both tuition waivers and stipends. 145,000 grad students receive partial or full tuition waivers. 57% of these grad students are in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In other words, graduate education in this country depends on tuition waivers. Without them, significantly fewer students could attend graduate school, and the United States would be put at a disadvantage particularly in the STEM areas.
Many schools extend tuition waivers to employees other than research assistants and to their families. In some cases, schools even offer tuition waivers to state employees who do not work at the school. There may be restrictions such as the number of hours. Examples are Florida State University and the University of Washington. But there is little doubt that the main beneficiaries of tuition waivers for employees are graduate students.
Tuition Waivers and Taxes
Just as graduate and PhD programs depend on tuition waivers, they also depend on the fact that tuition waivers are tax-free for teaching and research assistants under 26 U.S. Code § 117. Without tax-free status, many graduate students would have to pay half their stipends on taxes for their tuition waivers. This would have a devastating effect on graduate and PhD programs across the country.
When the tax code was overhauled at the end of 2017, the initial version of the bill struck down 26 U.S. Code § 117 (d), which is the provision that makes teaching and research assistant tuition waivers tax-free. However, in the face of strong public opposition from graduate students, the tuition waiver tax policy remained the same.
This is not to say that all tuition waivers are tax-free. 26 U.S. Code § 127 allows employers such as universities to exclude up to $5,250 for employer-provided tuition assistance for those not included in research or teaching activities. See the policy at the University of Minnesota as an example. If you are unsure whether your tuition waiver would be tax-free, check with your university.
How to Apply for a Tuition Waiver
In some cases, you will automatically be considered for a tuition waiver when you apply to the school. But you can’t count on that. The first thing to do is to go to the websites of the schools that interest you to see if you qualify for a tuition waiver. But don’t stop there. The next step is to call the bursar’s office. Ask about tuition waivers in general, but also specifically ask about waivers that might apply to you if have any kind of special status. For example, perhaps you are a member of a minority or served in the military or the Peace Corps. Also, ask about tuition waivers for those with low incomes; the level of income that qualifies may surprise you.
Employer Tuition Reimbursement
Tuition waiver by a university should not be confused with employer tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement. Some employers offer their employees a benefit where they pay for all or part of an employee’s education. Often the employer will only cover certain types of classes. Usually, the employee will pay for tuition and books up front and will be reimbursed later by the employer. Such reimbursement is often contingent on the employee getting a C grade or higher.
Other Avenues to Reduce College Costs
- Tuition-free schools (there are always criteria you must meet)
- Working, possibly through a school work-study program
- GI benefits which will pay some of your education bills up to 10 years after you have served, flexible payment plans
- Discounts if a close relative graduated from the school
- Regional exchange programs that may let you pay in-state prices for an out-of-state school.