While U.S. President Obama's proposal for free community college tuition may get little traction in a Republican-controlled Congress, there are already a few ways to get a higher education without paying.
The bad news: Most of those options are available to only a tiny number of the roughly 21 million people who enroll in college each year.
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Two years of tuition-free community college could benefit up to 9 million people, according to the White House. By contrast, only about 2,000 students a year get the prize chased by many talented scholars, athletes and musicians - the full-ride scholarship, says Mark Kantrowitz, editor of college resource site Edvisors.
Kantrowitz's analysis of data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study showed just 0.3 percent of full-time college students get enough scholarships and grants to cover their all their college bills. That means parents who spend thousands of dollars on coaching, camps and other extracurricular help in hopes of getting their kids big scholarships would probably be better off saving that money to pay college bills.
Tuition-free colleges do exist, and they tend to be among the most selective in the country. Two of the five military service academies, for example, have acceptance rates in the single digits, rivaling Ivy League schools.
These academies are four-year colleges that prepare students to be commissioned officers. The education typically is completely free in exchange for a commitment to serve a specified period.
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Other free schools tend to have small (sometimes tiny) enrollments and quite specific missions. For example, Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, enrolls about 600 students from 108 Central Appalachian counties to "educate mountain people for positions of leadership." In return, every full-time student must work a campus job for 10 to 20 hours a week.
Barclay College in Haviland, Kansas, was founded by Quakers and houses about 150 students from all Christian evangelical faiths. Admitted applicants automatically get full-tuition scholarships.
Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, is a Christian college founded by abolitionists committed to offering a high-quality liberal arts education to students from Appalachia. It has about 1,600 students.
College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, requires its 1,500 or so students to work 15 hours a week in exchange for a liberal arts education at the Christian school.
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Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia trains about 100 "exceptionally gifted young musicians" who apply by audition.
Deep Springs College in Big Pine, California offers an unusually rigorous two-year associate degree program to about two dozen young men, who typically finish their educations at prestigious four-year schools. Students help manage both the college and the isolated cattle ranch on which it is located. The school's 2011 decision to go co-ed has been stalled by court challenges, but a recent ruling in its favor may pave the way for admitting women.
Macaulay Honors College in New York City, part of the City University of New York, offers full-tuition scholarships to its 1,900 or so high-achieving students.
Webb Institute in Glen Cove, New York, is a specialty engineering school with 80 students that offers a dual bachelor's degree in naval architecture and marine engineering.
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The list of tuition-free schools no longer includes Manhattan's Cooper Union, which ended its 155-year tradition of full scholarships with the class of 2014. Every student now receives at least a 50 percent scholarship to offset the school's annual $39,600 tuition charge.
If none of those options appeal to you, consider studying abroad. Most European countries provide free or low-cost public college educations to their citizens, and some offer the same deal to American students.
Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and Norway have tuition-free universities with at least some courses taught in English, while Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Greece and Spain have free or low-cost educations for those who speak the native language. Outside of Europe, low or no-cost tuition for foreign students is available in the native language in Argentina, Brazil, Iceland, Mexico and Panama.
The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.