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Free EducationIt’s safe to say that student loans have gotten way out of hand over the last ten years, evidenced by the rising number of defaults and the fact that the amount of student loan debt has actually eclipsed credit card debt volumes. Suffice it to say, students need more affordable ways to receive a higher education, ways that don’t rob of them of having a financially secure future. What about a free education? It does exist, as long as you know where to look. Here’s a sampling of hot spots.

1. Target free colleges. Thanks to giant endowments, some colleges offer 100% free tuition. For example, highly-regarded, accredited colleges and universities across the country, including Cooper Union in New York to The Curtis Institute in Pennsylvania, provide full scholarships to all enrolled students. A few years back BusinessWeek did a nice spread on the various colleges around the country offering full scholarships to all students.

2. Apply for corporate tuition reimbursement programs. Many well-established companies offer up to 100% tuition reimbursement or assistance for existing workers that want to earn a work-related advanced degree. For example, if you work at Microsoft and want to get a masters in computer science, you may be able to convince the company to give you tuition and textbook reimbursement.

3. Teachers: Apply for tuition reimbursement. Teachers can take advantage of state-funded loan forgiveness programs, which offer student loan debt reimbursement in exchange for public school service in “critical shortage areas” like math or science for a specified number of years. There’s also the Stafford Loan Forgiveness Program for Teachers, run by the Department of Education, which provides full-time teachers, working in low-income communities, a chance to apply for loan forgiveness totaling up to $17,500 in principal and interest on their FFEL and/or Direct Loan program loans. You can read up on its other qualification standards at the government’s student aid Web site.  You can find links to each state’s program at TheTeacherCenter.org.

[Article: The Dos and Don’ts of Financing a College Education]

4. Seek brand new schools. New colleges and degree programs within universities sometimes attempt to attract their inaugural classes with the promise of free tuition. For example, The Aviation Institution of Maintenance in Oakland, Calif., began its first class this month and offered free tuition for the first 25 students who complete the 19-month program. The University of California in Irvine recently launched a graduate law program and offered  full scholarships to its initial class of 60 students. As for its next class of students, the Class of 2014, the Law School will offer every accepted student a minimum one-third scholarship covering tuition and fees for each of three consecutive years in school.

5. No luck? Self-educate. If you absolutely cannot afford a college or graduate school education and don’t want to assume the responsibility of carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, remember that you don’t have to deny yourself an education. While some careers like law and medicine do require an actual degree to practice, many others don’t. “Hit the library,” says Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business. “Books are enormously valuable. Authors spend years – sometimes decades – recording their hard-won knowledge and experience… and you can take advantage of that wealth of accumulated wisdom absolutely free with a library card.” Kaufman’s blog PersonalMBA.com helps readers learn key business concepts on their own and save over $100,000 by skipping business school. “Many of my readers use what they learn to start successful businesses of their own – no interview required. If you can create and deliver valuable things that other people want or need, customers don’t care whether or not you have a credential. If you work for yourself, you have the power to make your job as great as you want it to be,” says Kaufman. What’s more, in a recent academic study, researchers in the department of sociology at New York University question how much actual learning occurs on in college classrooms. According to their findings, 45% students of students made no gains on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test of analytical reasoning, critical thinking and written communication skills. Instead, students that learned and improved the most spent time in solitary study, read constantly, and write constantly.

Check back on Monday for my reflective piece on the recent NYU study on higher education. Is college worth the price (or debt, as it is) if students aren’t supposedly learning?

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