How To Get A College Degree For Free

The online university UniversityNow is offering a way for working adults to get a college degree at literally no cost to its students.

How To Get A College Degree For Free
Graduation via Shutterstock

Lucky high school students can scrape together enough scholarships and grants to cover a hefty portion of their college tuition. But working adults? They’re generally on their own. UniversityNow has gained a following for its approach to solving the college tuition program: a competency-based education platform that offers low-cost degrees through two accredited online schools–New Charter University and Patten University. The schools are cheap compared to traditional universities–New Charter is $199 per month for unlimited classes (including e-textbooks). But UniversityNow is going a step further, making it possible for a significant portion of the working adult population to get a degree from Charter or Patten for free.


The startup announced this week that it’s teaming up with the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento, California, for the College Works Initiative, which caps the cost of attending UniversityNow’s schools at whatever students receive in tuition reimbursement from their employers. That means several hundred thousand workers in the three cities–anyone who gets tuition reimbursement–can now obtain a college degree at no cost.

Believe it or not, this won’t put a strain on UniversityNow’s business. “Because we run a low-cost model, for most employers their tuition reimbursement is more than our retail cost. That’s how we stumbled into this,” explains UniversityNow co-founder and CEO Gene Wade. And for the working adults who get a smaller tuition reimbursement–well, they’re in luck.

The federal limit for giving employees tuition reimbursement without being taxed is $5,250 per year. That’s often where employers will cap reimbursement, giving employees facing college tuitions that cost tens of thousands of dollars each year little hope. A BS in business from New Charter, on the other hand, costs $6,368 in total.

UniversityNow’s schools aren’t for everyone–if you’re looking for a degree from an elite school, you should look elsewhere. But the company expects an uptick in students from the initiative. As Wade points out, if the average loan balance for students is a little under $26,000–higher for working adults–1,000 people going through the College Works Initiative will save $25 million in tuition costs. “Our hypothesis is that there will be a lot of people interested in this,” says Wade, in the understatement of the year.

The mayors of the three cities involved are promoting the initiative with a series of talks, convening business and civic leaders. “It’s clear to us that even when we talk to advocates and people who care about the issue … the fact that working adults are really getting hammered in this is getting lost,” says Wade. “We look at this as a way to solve a problem for a fast-growing group of people where the current storyline in the policy world just doesn’t catch what’s happening with them.”

UniversityNow plans on rolling out the College Works Initiative to the rest of the country soon.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.