Cadets at West Point receive a full scholarship and an annual salary to pay expenses. Graduates owe five years of active service.

Even as the price tag of a four-year college degree outpaces inflation, a handful of U.S. colleges and universities are going to extraordinary lengths to contain costs — by picking up full tuition for every student they enroll. Most colleges offering free tuition are military academies; several are engineering schools, where graduates are in short supply and demand is great.


One school, Webb Institute of Glen Cove, N.Y., offers a double major in naval architecture and marine engineering. The Cooper Union in New York City focuses on architecture and the arts, as well as engineering. And there are also two Christian schools: The College of the Ozarks, a “work school” in rural Point Lookout, Mo., and Berea College, a liberal arts school in Berea, Ky.

The value these colleges provide to cash-strapped students and parents hasn’t gone unnoticed as costs continue to climb. Tuition, fees, room and board at four-year public colleges jumped 46% in the past decade, from an average of $10,440 in 1999-2000 to $15,210 last year, according to the non-profit College Board. At private schools, costs rose 28% in that period, from an average of $27,740 to $35,640.Schools that cover full tuition “are doing the near-impossible to make school affordable for all of their students,” says Robert Franek of education and test-prep company The Princeton Review, whose annual list of 100 Best Value Colleges includes nine colleges that for the current school year are covering full tuition for every student. “Best Values” excel at both academics and financial aid. (Berea was not on the list; its data were incorrectly reported, The Princeton Review says.)

But one of the free-tuition schools that is on the list, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., says that because of losses to its endowment fund, it will no longer cover full tuition for future incoming classes; it will switch to half-tuition scholarships beginning this fall. Colleges saw an average 18.7% drop in their endowments this year, according to the Commonfund and the non-profit National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Not a permanent change
“This decision was reached after much soul-searching and careful consideration of the long-term financial outlook for Olin,” admissions dean Charles Nolan wrote in a letter posted on the school’s website. “Our priority in these deliberations was maintaining the quality of Olin’s academic programs. At the end of the day, we felt that the kind of reductions we were facing in our endowment-dependent budgets were simply too great to address through cost-cutting alone.”

He added that the school was committed to “restoring the scholarship to 100% as soon as financial conditions allow.” The Princeton Review notes that even the half-tuition scholarship is a good deal: Olin remains on its 100 Best Values list for 2010.

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Commitment to Army, work
At some schools, students who receive free tuition must pay other costs, including fees, room and board and expenses such as textbooks. Military schools are the exception: At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., all expenses, including medical care, are provided. In exchange, the Army requires five years of active service after graduation.

At College of the Ozarks — dubbed “Hard Work U” — each student participates in the on-campus work program for 15 hours a week, plus two 40-hour workweeks. Some may do landscaping, others work in the cafeteria or on production lines making fruitcakes and jellies.

“Students leave with an appreciation for what it takes to make it in real life,” says spokeswoman Elizabeth Andrews. “It’s not some kind of dream world where you party it up. You come and have real expectations for work and study.”

As college costs rise, 86% of students and parents say financial aid is “very necessary,” according to a survey of 9,000 students and 3,000 parents that Princeton Review released in March. Two out of three said the recession influenced their decisions about where to apply.

Franek notes that many other schools on the Best Value list try hard to meet students’ financial needs, even though they don’t cover full tuition for all students.

“Most university officials would say that their mission is to make sure they are offsetting costs for students,” Franek says. “Some schools are better at it than others.”

   Berea College1 Berea, Ky., berea.edu 

College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, Mo., cofo.edu

Cooper Union, New York City, cooper.edu

Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering2 Needham, Mass., olin.edu

U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, usafa.af.mil

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, N.Y., usmma.edu

U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., usma.edu

U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md., usna.edu

U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, Conn., cga.edu

Webb Institute, Glen Cove, N.Y., webb-institute.edu

1 Not on Princeton Review’s 100 Best Value Colleges list because of data reporting error

2 Covering full tuition this year, but will switch to half tuition for classes entering in the fall

Via USA Today