Free College Options Still Exist, for Those Willing to Build Ships, Milk Cows or Salute

Lauren Williams's picture

When the trustees of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art voted this week to start charging for an undergraduate degree, it ended the institution’s lengthy reign as the most famous tuition-free private college in America.

But it was never the only such place. While most colleges grapple with the growing burden of student debt, a few outliers across the country and even New York State offer a college education for the one price that looks good in any economy: nothing.

To qualify for Cooper Union’s largess, applicants had to prove themselves on the highest tier of the highest tier of academic or artistic achievement. That might strike some New Yorkers as easy compared with the requirements at some of the other free colleges. One requires students to work on a ranch, milking cows and harvesting alfalfa. Another requires them to build a container ship. And the national service academies, of course, require years of service in support of a robust national defense.

Applicants whose interests lead toward engineering — specifically, naval architecture and marine engineering — have a free alternative to Cooper Union’s engineering school that is just a few stops away on the Long Island Rail Road. The Webb Institute, in Glen Cove, accepts just 26 students a year. Admissions ratios are not even relevant, as only about 100 people a year have high enough scores and grades to qualify for the privilege of applying. Students work two months a year in related industries, design a container ship and complete a thesis. Hard work, but the results are hard to beat: Robert C. Olsen Jr., the school’s outgoing president, says the institute can boast 100 percent job placement. Room and board and other fees come to a little over $12,000 a year.

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