Though universities and state colleges tend to get the most acclaim, they’re quite expensive and many students seek more affordable alternatives. In fact, more than 10 million students were enrolled in community college in the 2020-2021 school year (about 6.2 million for credit and a bit more than 4.1 million not for credit), according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
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President Joe Biden made two years of free college tuition one of his top priorities from the start of his campaign. So far, that dream has not become a reality and cost remains one of the biggest barriers to higher education.
That’s true even for community college, despite the fact that two-year public schools cost an average of $3,400 per year for in-district students, according to EducationData.org, compared to $10,300 for four-year public colleges and $38,070 for private colleges and universities. The good news is, half the states in the country provide some form of free community college to qualifying student-residents — although it’s worth noting that many students won’t qualify.
How 25 States Make Community College Free
Most states provide free community college tuition in one of two ways:
- First-dollar grants waive tuition and fees irrespective of any other funding or awards that the student might qualify for
- Last-dollar grants fill in any gaps after a student receives awards and financial aid that aren’t enough to cover the full cost of tuition and fees
Some of the following offerings are available only to students pursuing certain types of certificates or degree programs. Many are need-based programs determined by household income. Others come with GPA requirements, age requirements or other stipulations. If your state is on this list, make sure you understand the rules that are specific to that program before you apply.
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States With Free Community College
- Arkansas: The Arkansas Future Grant is a last-dollar grant for STEM students.
- California: The Golden State is home to one of the country’s rare first-dollar programs, called California Promise.
- Connecticut: Connecticut has two free college programs — New Haven Promise and the Pledge to Advance Connecticut (PACT).
- Delaware: Student Excellence Equals Degree (SEED) is a last-dollar program that provides free tuition for community college and some two-year programs at the University of Delaware.
- Georgia: The HOPE Career Grant provides tuition for students who enroll in certain majors aligned with in-demand careers in Georgia.
- Hawaii: Hawai’i Promise is a last-dollar program for qualified University of Hawaii Community College students.
- Indiana: Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program is unique in that it requires parents to enroll their children very young — no earlier than seventh grade, no later than eighth grade.
- Iowa: The tuition program in Iowa is called the Future Ready Iowa Last-Dollar Scholarship.
- Kansas: The Kansas Comprehensive Grant waives tuition for students pursuing coursework for high-demand, critical-industry fields.
- Kentucky: The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program provides free tuition to students pursuing degrees and certificates that prepare them for work in in-demand sectors of the Kentucky economy.
- Louisiana: Funding from the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) is distributed through four state scholarship awards programs.
- Maryland: Community College Promise Scholarship is a last-dollar program that pays for qualifying certificates and associate degrees.
- Missouri: In 2016, Missouri’s A+ Scholarship Program was extended to the state’s non-public school students.
- Montana: The Montana Promise Grant program provides tuition both for traditional community colleges and for two-year tribal colleges.
- Nevada: The Nevada Promise Scholarship is a last-dollar fund that provides up to three years of tuition.
- New Jersey: The Community College Opportunity Grant, a need-based fund for households with incomes of $65,000 or less, is new in New Jersey as of 2018.
- New York: New York’s Excelsior Scholarship Program provides tuition for qualifying two- and four-year programs at both CUNY and SUNY schools.
- Oklahoma: Oklahoma’s Promise is a need-based grant for students from households that earn $60,000 or less. You can apply as early as eighth grade.
- Oregon: Oregon Promise is a last-dollar funding program that provides tuition for any community college in the state.
- Rhode Island: Rhode Island Promise provides free community college tuition to all state residents right out of high school.
- South Dakota: The Build Dakota Scholarship Fund is a last-dollar program specifically designed to provide tuition funding for technical degrees.
- Tennessee: Tennessee Promise provides last-dollar funding for tuition to 40 community and technical colleges across the state.
- Virginia: In March, the governor of Virginia signed legislation that created the Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back initiative, which provides free tuition in high-demand fields for tens of thousands of low- and middle-income students in Virginia.
- Washington: The College Bound Scholarship offers funding to pay for tuition, some fees, and a small book allowance that students can use at more than 65 colleges, universities and technical schools in the state. Students enroll in the program in middle school.
- West Virginia: West Virginia Invests is a last-dollar funding program that provides tuition to qualifying students who are pursuing specific in-demand degrees and certificates.
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Jordan Rosenfeld contributed to the reporting for this article.