There are so many great things about college: making new friends, having new experiences, learning about topics you really care about, and graduating with a boat-load of debt. Wait, what was that last one?
It’s no secret that college is expensive — and fees just keep on rising. And while many students choose to turn to far more affordable community colleges, these still often come with a cost.
Unless, of course, you live in one of the 17 states in the US that offer free community college programs. Are you lucky enough to live in one of these places where you can get an education and save some valuable cash? Read on to find out.
What is Tuition-Free College?
Tuition-free programs mean that students who meet eligibility requirements can go to specified community colleges for free, without paying hefty tuition fees.
However, it’s important to note that while the programs cover tuition, that doesn’t make college free. There are also charges like room, board, transportation, and textbooks — which still need to be paid for out of pocket.
These amounts add up! The average tuition fee for a four-year course in a community college in 2019-20 was $10,440. With boarding and room charges included, it jumped to $21,950. States that allow students to offset those tuition fees are giving them a huge leg-up toward avoiding hefty college debt.
First-Dollar vs. Last-Dollar Grants
The majority of the programs below are “last-dollar” programs — while only a few select states offer “first-dollar” programs. But what’s the difference?
Last-dollar grants are awarded to students whose aid falls short of the overall college fees. However, this only applies after taking into account their financial contribution, combined with the federal financial aid they are eligible to receive.
These programs essentially cover the gap between the total aid provided to a student and the cost of college education (tuition plus fees).
In comparison, a first-dollar scholarship provides tuition fee waivers to students, regardless of additional funding or grants the student is eligible for.
States Which Offer Tuition-Free Community College
Arkansas – Arkansas Future Grant
The Arkansas Future Grant is a last-dollar grant that is available to students pursuing a two-year program in science, technology, engineering, and math fields or a regional high demand area of study.
Students who have graduated from an Arkansas public school or received a recognized high school equivalency diploma, and have lived in the state for three consecutive years are eligible to apply for the program.
Apart from that, a recipient must complete eight hours of community service per semester and must work full-time for three consecutive years in the state following graduation.
California – California Promise
Unlike most of the programs in this list, California Promise is a first-dollar program, which means it provides tuition waivers to students, regardless of additional funding or grants the students are eligible for.
As one of the best examples of free community college on this list, state resident students planning to attend or attending a two-year or four-year degree can apply.
Only full-time students are eligible, which means students must complete 30-semester units within each academic year.
Delaware – SEED (Student Excellence Equals Degree)
The SEED program covers tuition for full-time students for two-year programs at the University of Delaware for its Associate of Arts degree program or any program at Delaware Technical Community College.
SEED is available for Delaware students who have maintained a 2.5 cumulative grade point average (GPA) on a 4.0 scale, or a combined score of 1350 on the new Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or a composite American College Testing (ACT) score of at least 19.
Students applying to the program cannot have been convicted of a felony and can enroll no later than the fall semester immediately after high school graduation.
Hawaii – Hawaii Promise Scholarship
The Hawaii Promise Scholarship covers the tuition fees of students who are enrolled in at least six credits at a University of Hawaii Community College. This is a last-dollar program, meaning it covers financial needs not met by other forms of financial aids. It covers tuition, fees, books, supplies, and transportation for eligible students. Around 1,500 students received the scholarship in 2017-18, receiving an average of $1,200 each.
Residents of Hawaii who have submitted their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application can apply.
Indiana – 21st Century Scholars Program
This is a unique program that offers up to four years of tuition to the state’s residents with a requirement that they have to commit to the program in 7th or 8th grade.
It also requires the applicants to have good academic performance throughout their high school, and good behavior that is free of drug use and other illegal acts.
Students must enroll in 7th or 8th grade, earn an overall high school GPA of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale, complete the Scholar Success Program, and earn Indiana’s Core 40 Diploma, and complete at least 30 credit hours each year in college.
An income threshold level also applies to be eligible for the program.
Kentucky – Work First Kentucky Scholars Program
The Work First Kentucky Scholars Program provides free community college tuition to students in Kentucky who pursue degrees in an in-demand workforce sector, including healthcare, advanced manufacturing, transportation/logistics, business services/IT, and construction.
To apply for this program, the student must be a US citizen and a resident of Kentucky.
They should be a high school graduate or be enrolled in or have completed a General Educational Development (GED) Program. A student must maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher in school to qualify.
Maryland – Maryland Community College Scholarship
The program offers students up to $5,000 to cover their two-year community college tuition to enroll in a vocational course. There is no age limit for recipients.
A high school student or a GED recipient must have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.3 and must not have an income of more than $100,000 annually if the person is unmarried, or $150,000 if the person is married or resides in a two-parent household.
Recipients are required to work full-time in the state within one year after earning the degree or certificate.
Minnesota – MnSCU Two-Year Occupational Grant Pilot Program
Students enrolled in a two-year technical program in Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) can apply for this program. The grant is available for up to 72-semester credits. It’s also a last-dollar program, meaning the funding only kicks in after other grants and aid have been applied. The program covers only certain courses.
Students must either hold a diploma from a Minnesota high school, have passed the GED exam from the state, or have completed the Adult Basic Education (ABE) program.
Missouri – A+ Scholarship
This program provides grants to eligible students of the states who want to attend a community college or vocational/technical school, or certain private two-year vocational/technical schools.
Applicants must have attended an A+ high school for at least two years prior to graduation, with a GPA of 2.5 or higher on a 4.0 scale.
Applicants must have at least a 95 percent attendance record overall for grades 9 to 12. They also have to perform at least 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or mentoring, of which up to a quarter may include job shadowing (on job learning) prior to graduation.
Montana – Montana Promise Grant Program
The Montana Promise Grant Program is for students pursuing an associate degree or professional credential at one of Montana’s two-year, tribal, and community colleges.
Students must be a Montana resident for at least 12 months and must have a GPA of at least 2.5 in high school. Students should not have completed more than 60 credit hours or the equivalent at a postsecondary institution or earned an associate degree.
New York – Excelsior Scholarship
The Excelsior Scholarship covers tuition up to $5,500 for students attending a two-year or four-year undergraduate-degree-granting school in the State University of New York (SUNY) system or the City University of New York system (CUNY).
Applicants must have either graduated from a high school, earned a high school equivalency diploma, or passed a federally approved Ability-to-Benefit test.
It is available to students with an adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less, and the applicant must be a US citizen and a resident of New York for the last one year prior to the beginning of the term.
The student has to enroll in at least 12 credits per term, complete at least 30 credits each year, and has to reside in the state for the length of the time the award was received.
Nevada – Nevada Promise Scholarship
This program is one of the most flexible options on the list. It covers up to three years of college tuition for students enrolled in any of the four community colleges in the state.
There’s no minimum GPA or SAT score to receive the scholarship. However, students must complete 20 hours of community service.
Oklahoma – Oklahoma’s Promise
The Oklahoma Promise program was started in 1992 to help more Oklahoma families send their children to college. It allows students who are enrolled in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade in an Oklahoma high school to earn free tuition at a state public two-year college or four-year university when they attend.
An applicant’s family income must be less than $55,000 per annum, and students must have completed a prescribed list of high school courses.
Apart from that, during the course, if a student gets suspended for more than one semester for conduct reasons, they will lose the scholarship permanently.
Oregon – Oregon Promise
This program covers tuition costs of up to $4,000 per year for high school graduates enrolled in both two and four-year community colleges in the state.
Have at least a 2.5 cumulative high school GPA or a grade of at least 145 on all GED tests.
Applicants must have been a resident of Oregon for the last 12 months and should not have more than 90 college credits completed or attempted.
Rhode Island – Rhode Island Promise
The program allows the high school graduates of the state to pursue tuition-free associate degrees at The Community College of Rhode Island, regardless of their income status.
Applicants must have had a minimum 2.5 GPA in high school, and should be younger than 19 years.
Those who wish to pursue higher education than an associate degree can transfer the grant to the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College through the Joint Admissions Agreement program.
Tennessee – Tennessee Promise
The Tennessee Promise provides eligible high school students tuition-free education at the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 technical schools or eligible public and private universities with two-year programs.
Another highlight of the program is that it provides guidance to students in the form of a mentor to navigate the college admission process.
Tennessee residents applying for the program must maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher and must complete eight hours of community service per term.
Washington – College Bound Scholarship Washington
The College Bound Scholarship is a last-dollar scholarship that covers tuition, some fees, and a small book allowance. Students in 7th or 8th grade from low-income families can apply.
To be eligible for the College Bound Scholarship Washington, students must meet the FAFSA income eligibility criteria.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tuition-Free College
Is community college free in the US?
Community colleges are typically not free in the US. However, 17 states currently offer programs that offset or remove tuition costs for eligible students at certain colleges. These programs generally don’t cover associated costs like books, room, or transportation.
Which state has the cheapest community college?
Kansas’ Coffeyville Community College reportedly has the lowest average tuition in the US at $1,120 per year.
Meanwhile, California holds the honor of being the state with the country’s most affordable public schools. The Golden State has an average fee of $3,088 for in-state public colleges and $11,992 for out-of-state public schools in 2020.
Which states have free community college?
There are 17 US states that provide tuition-free community programs for eligible students. These are Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Washington.
Is it better to go to community college first, then transfer?
Whether you choose to do community college before going to a four-year college depends upon your overall plan for higher education. Community colleges cost a lot less than a traditional four-year college, and also offer the flexibility to work while studying.
The average annual cost of tuition and fees for a public two-year college is $3,440 for in-district students. However, the average annual cost for a public four-year college is $9,410 for in-state students and $23,890 for out-of-state students, according to the College Board.
Another big reason for choosing community colleges over four-year university programs is their less-strict admission criteria, with many having open admission policies. This means that any person who graduates from high school and applies will generally be accepted.
On the other hand, if you want to have a more comprehensive and well-rounded learning experience with on-campus housing and dining facilities, athletic programs, and student clubs/organizations, then four-year university education may suit you better.
Do community colleges offer bachelor degrees?
Yes. In the US, 23 states allow community colleges to offer a bachelor’s degree. On the list are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.