Guide to Free Community College in the U.S.

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Updated on Monday, July 1, 2019

free community college

Free community college in the U.S. is starting to become a reality. As of April 2019, 24 states have signed into law versions of “College Promise” programs or state-funded scholarships and grants aimed at delivering subsidized higher education to their residents. This number is expected to grow in the coming year as other states have begun pushing for legislation. Numerous cities across the U.S. have also taken notice, enacting localized scholarships that cover the costs of two-year college programs.

While the past few years have proven to be monumental for the College Promise cause, this is a movement that has been long in the making:

The history of the free college movement in the United States

Free community college in the 2020 presidential election

With student debt now exceeding $1.5 trillion, some 2020 presidential candidates are proposing some form of free higher education, including free community college. Here are where some of the candidates stand:

  • Julián Castro, the former HUD secretary and San Antonio mayor, has proposed sweeping education reform with his People First Education plan. His plan calls for tuition-free public universities, community colleges and vocational schools.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont first introduced the College for All Act in 2017, which aimed to make college free for students whose families earn under $125,000. In June 2019, Sen. Sanders formally reintroduced the College for All Act, which would eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, as well as trade schools, apprenticeship programs and two-year colleges. The plan would also eliminate $1.6 trillion in student loan debt via a tax on Wall Street speculation.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California stated in January 2019, according to transcripts of her speech: “I am running to declare education is a fundamental right, and we will guarantee that right with universal pre-K and debt-free college.” Harris also co-sponsored the Debt-Free College Act of 2018 with Sen. Brian Schatz.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has proposed a broad plan to cancel up to $50,000 of student loan debt for households with incomes under $100,000 and provide universal free college. This would be paid for via Sen. Warren’s “Ultra-Millionaire Tax?.”

Which states offer free community college?

So far, 24 states have created different versions of state-funded programs to help residents pay for higher education.

The free community college movement

In recent years, there has been a significant push to make America’s public colleges tuition-free.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition was established in 2014 as 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It is a bipartisan group that works with elected officials, leaders and policy experts to make public colleges tuition-free.

In addition, President Barack Obama proposed the College Promise National Advisory Board in 2015, which pushed for offering two years of community college tuition-free. This proposal was expanded with the America’s College Promise Act of 2015, which would have awarded federal-state partnership grants to states that waive tuition and fees for students wanting to attend community college. While this bill did not pass, several states have gone on to make college tuition-free in their states without federal assistance.

While every state program is different, each is helping students ease the burden of college debt and gain access to higher education.

Free community college in Arkansas

Arkansas created the Arkansas Future Grant (ARFuture Grant) in 2017 to help Arkansas residents cover the costs of tuition and fees at Arkansas community colleges and technical schools. The program is designed to boost higher education in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields, as well as fields of study in demand locally. Students must be enrolled in a qualifying degree program in order to receive the grant and stay in state for three years upon completion of the program.

Who qualifies

In order to receive the ARFuture Grant, students must:

  • Have resided in Arkansas for the three years prior to receiving the grant or have graduated from an Arkansas public school, home school or received a GED
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Be enrolled part-time or full-time at an approved institution in a qualifying program of study
  • Receive monthly mentoring
  • Complete at least 15 hours of community service for every semester they receive the grant
  • Reside in the state for three years upon graduation
  • Be employed within six months of graduating

What it covers

ArFuture is a last-dollar (meaning it can only be used after other financial aid is exhausted) state grant that covers tuition, fees and charges for eligible students after they’ve exhausted other forms of financial aid (private scholarships, federal financial aid, state-sponsored aid). The grant is awarded on a first come, first served basis and can be used by students for up to five semesters at an approved Arkansas college.

If students are enrolled at an approved four-year college, the grant might not cover all tuition and fees, since students will be awarded the average cost at approved two-year colleges.

Upon graduation, students must commit to working in Arkansas for three consecutive years and find employment within six months of graduating.

Fine print

A few things to keep in mind when pursuing an ARFuture Grant:

  • Students must be enrolled in a high-demand field of study program.
  • Students must meet satisfactory academic progress standards, as defined by their school.
  • Failing to meet the mentor, community service, post-graduation state residency or employment requirements will result in grants being converted to loans.

Free community college in California

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California College Promise Grant into law in October 2017. This program aims at making the first year of community college tuition-free for eligible students. The program builds on a previous college promise initiative, the Board of Governors Fee Waiver, which aimed at providing low-income students a pathway to community college with no tuition or fees. The California College Promise has expanded on this by allocating $46 million toward helping California residents receive tuition-free community college and achieve successful outcomes.

Who qualifies

To be eligible* for the California College Promise Grant, students must:

  • Be enrolled at a California community college
  • Be a first-time student
  • Be a California resident or be exempt from non-resident fees under AB-540
  • Have financial need
  • Be a full-time student taking at least 12 credits per semester
  • Maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0

*Eligibility requirements may differ by California district.

What it covers

The California College Promise Grant aims to cover enrollment fees for the first year of community college. The plan waives the $46 per-unit fee for enrolling at any of California’s 114 community colleges. It is a first-dollar award, meaning students can use it regardless of any additional forms of financial aid they might receive.

Fine print

In order to be eligible to receive a California College Promise Grant, students and their families should note:

  • Funds are paid directly to the community college after the College Promise application is completed and the student is registered for classes.
  • Certain income limit requirements must be met. For example, for the 2018-2019 school year, a family of four must earn less than $36,900 to be eligible for the grant.

Free college in Delaware

The Delaware Student Excellence Equals Degree (SEED) scholarship program was created in 2005. This last-dollar program (meaning it can only be used after other financial aid is exhausted) helps eligible students seeking an associate degree at the Delaware Technical Community College or the University of Delaware’s Associate in Arts program receive reduced or tuition-free higher education. The state has gone on to create the Inspire scholarship for eligible students attending Delaware State University.

Who qualifies

In order to receive a SEED scholarship, students must:

  • Live in Delaware
  • Have graduated from a Delaware high school with a cumulative GPA of 2.5 or 80 on a 100-point scale
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Apply for all appropriate forms of financial aid, including Pell Grants
  • Be enrolled in a degree-seeking program at Delaware Tech or the University of Delaware’s Associate in Arts program
  • Have not committed a felony
  • Attend college in the semester immediately following high school graduation
  • Maintain full-time status (24 credit hours per academic year)
  • Maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.5

Inspire scholarships are awarded to students attending Delaware State University who fulfill the above criteria and:

  • Graduate from a Delaware high school with a GPA of at least 2.75
  • Complete 10 hours of community service each semester
  • Maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.75
  • Take a minimum of 24 credits per year

What it covers

The SEED scholarship aims to cover all tuition costs that other forms of financial aid do not. The scholarship does not pay for fees and books, and it is only applicable to students pursuing associate degrees from Delaware Technical Community College or the University of Delaware’s Associate in Arts program.

The Inspire scholarship provides eligible students up to approximately $3,900 per year toward tuition at Delaware State University. This scholarship can extend up to eight semesters. Like SEED, this is a last-dollar scholarship that covers the remaining tuition after other financial is exhausted, and it can’t cover non-tuition costs.

Fine print

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when considering the Delaware SEED or Inspire programs:

  • You must start college in the fall following graduation to be considered eligible. Students who take a semester off are not eligible.
  • Students must take a full course load and complete at least 24 credits in the academic year to maintain eligibility.
  • The SEED scholarship will be awarded for a maximum of six continuous semesters.
  • If a Pell Grant covers full tuition, students are not eligible for a SEED or Inspire grant.

Free community college in Hawaii

The Hawaii Promise was signed into law in 2017 by Gov. David Ige. The legislation appropriated $1.8 million to providing eligible Hawaii residents free tuition at seven University of Hawai’i Community Colleges. The program is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it will provide financial assistance only after other financial aid and scholarships have been applied.

Who qualifies

In order to be eligible for the Hawaii Promise, applicants must:

  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Be a resident of Hawaii or qualify for exempt status
  • Take at least six credits per semester within the UH system
  • Take at least one credit at the applicant’s home institution
  • Not possess a bachelor’s degree
  • Meet satisfactory academic progress policy requirements while enrolled
  • Seek a degree in a program that accepts financial aid
  • Accept all forms of federal and state grants, scholarships and any other funding sources that do not require repayment

What it covers

The Hawaii Promise is a needs-based, last-dollar scholarship that covers in-state tuition at the University of Hawaii Community Colleges. Students who qualify will receive financial aid that covers direct educational costs. This includes: tuition, fees, books, supplies and transportation. For the 2017-2018 year, the average award was $1,200.

Fine print

When applying for the Hawaii Promise scholarship, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Applicants must exhaust all other forms of financial aid before receiving funding.
  • Students must take at least six credits per semester.
  • Students must maintain a GPA of 2.0 to remain eligible as per the satisfactory academic progress guidelines.

Free college in Idaho

Established in 2015, Idaho’s Direct Admissions program provides a pathway for high school seniors to be accepted to eligible Idaho colleges and universities without applying to them. The state program uses GPA and SAT/ACT scores to assure incoming freshmen seats at eligible institutions.

The state has additionally created the Opportunity Scholarship, which is a needs-based scholarship for eligible Idaho residents that can be renewed for up to four years. Idahoans may see broader tuition assistance in the future. Some Idaho lawmakers are proposing an Idaho Promise program, similar to other states, which would provide free tuition to all residents seeking a certificate or associate degree at Idaho’s community colleges, regardless of income or age.

Who qualifies

While the Direct Admissions program automatically sends letters out to high school seniors notifying them they’ve been accepted into the program, the Opportunity Scholarship does have some eligibility requirements. Applicants must:

  • Be a resident of Idaho
  • Have a cumulative, unweighted GPA of 2.7 or above
  • Be working toward their first undergraduate degree or certificate
  • Earn at least 24 postsecondary credits before a cease in enrollment
  • Have not attended a postsecondary institution within the last two years
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress
  • Attend an eligible university or certificate program

What it covers

The Opportunity Scholarship awards eligible applicants up to $3,500 per year and is renewable for up to four years. Recipients must renew each year to continue to receive the scholarship.  Money can be spent on education costs, which include tuition, fees, books and other reasonable expenses related to college attendance.

Fine print

It’s important to note that in order to continue to renew an Opportunity Scholarship, students must:

  • Maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.0
  • Students must complete at least 24 credit hours per academic year if attending a four-year institution
  • Students attending a two-year program must complete 18 credits per academic year in order to remain eligible

Free community college in Indiana

Indiana’s Workforce Ready Grant helps students pay tuition and mandatory fees for eligible high-value programs at Ivy Tech Community College, Vincennes University and other certificate providers. The definition of “high-value” is based on employer demand, wages and industries whose workers are in high demand throughout Indiana. These are currently:

  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Building and construction
  • Health services
  • Information technology and business services
  • Transportation and logistics

Who qualifies

In order to qualify for the Indiana Workforce Ready Grant, prospective students must:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Be an Indiana resident and U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen
  • Have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • File a FAFSA
  • Enroll full-time (four courses) if a dependent student or half-time (two courses) if independent
  • Make satisfactory academic progress, as defined by the school

What it covers

The Workforce Ready Grant covers two years of tuition and fees after other financial aid has been applied at Ivy Tech Community College, Vincennes University and other approved providers. While the grant counts toward all required credits of a qualifying program, it does not cover courses that fall outside of the designated program curriculum. It also doesn’t cover any extra program-specific costs and equipment.

Fine print

Keep in mind when considering applying for the Indiana Workforce Ready Grant:

  • The Workforce Ready Grant is not limited by family income.
  • Those who have already completed a bachelor’s or associate degree are not eligible to participate in this program.

Free community college in Kentucky

Gov. Matt Bevin signed the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship (WRKS) into law in December 2016. This state-based, last-dollar scholarship (meaning it can only be used after other financial aid is exhausted) helps Kentucky residents earn an associate degree in five approved fields of study: health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation/logistics, construction and business services/information technology. Find a full list of programs here.

Who qualifies

To qualify for WRKS, applicants must meet certain criteria:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident
  • Be a Kentucky resident
  • Have earned a high school diploma or GED
  • Have not yet earned an associate or more advanced degree
  • Be enrolled or accepted into an approved institution under an approved field of study
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress (minimum 2.0 GPA) to continue receiving funding
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Not be in default or owe a balance to the Kentucky Higher Education Academic Association (KHEAA)

What it covers

The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship covers eligible student’s tuition and fees after federal and state financial aid, grants and scholarships have been exhausted. It can be used to cover four semesters (or 60 credit hours) at any one of the 16 approved colleges across Kentucky. Of the five designated fields of study the scholarship applies toward, there are more than 350 programs potential students can apply to. Funding for WRKS is awarded on a first come, first served basis to applicants.

Fine print

  • You cannot be enrolled in any other higher education program while receiving this scholarship.
  • The amount awarded for fees shall not exceed $400 per year.

Free college in Louisiana

Louisiana’s Taylor Plan has been around since 1989, but it was renamed the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students in 2008 by Gov. Bobby Jindal. TOPS is a scholarship funded by the state that can cover up to four years of college tuition at the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (LAICU). There are currently four types of TOPS scholarships, each with its own award amounts, eligibility and renewal requirements:

Who qualifies

While all four Louisiana TOPS scholarships have individually specific requirements for eligibility, they all share a few conditions:

  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Be a Louisiana resident
  • A minimum composite score of 20 on the ACT (1020-1050 on the SAT)
  • Graduate high school with a minimum GPA of 2.5 in TOPS’ core curriculum classes
  • Enroll as a full-time freshman by the first semester following the one-year anniversary of high school graduation

What it covers

The Louisiana TOPS scholarship award amounts differ depending on which program a student qualifies for. The TOPS scholarship can be used in conjunction with other types of financial aid and scholarships, up to the cost of attendance, which includes not only tuition and fees but room and board, books and other expenses. Awards are paid directly to the college or university being attended, and any funds left over are disbursed to students. Eligible students can receive the award for up to eight semesters.

For the 2018-2019 school year, the award amounts are:

  • TOPS Opportunity Award: $2,703.48 per semester
  • TOPS Performance Award: $2,903.48 per semester
  • TOPS Honors Award: $3,103.48 per semester

*TOPS Tech Awards depend on the institution or program a student is attending.

Fine print

When applying to the TOPS program, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Parents must give written consent to release academic transcripts to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance in order for the state to determine if a student is eligible for a TOPS program.
  • Students who complete an undergraduate program in fewer than eight semesters may be eligible to receive scholarship awards toward a graduate degree.

Free community college in Maryland

Maryland residents can receive up to $5,000 toward their community college tuition with the Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship. This program was signed into law in 2018 in an effort to give low-income families a pathway to higher education.

Who qualifies

To qualify for the Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship, students must:

  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Be a Maryland resident
  • Enroll within two years of high school graduation or equivalent, with a minimum GPA of 2.3
  • Enroll full-time (12 credits per semester) for a credit certificate or associate degree
  • Have an annual income of less than $100,000 if the applicant is single or living in a single-parent household or $150,000 if the applicant is married or living in a two-parent household
  • Maintain a 2.5 GPA throughout college
  • Reapply for the scholarship each year
  • Agree to the work requirements

What it covers

This scholarship pays for up to $5,000 of the cost of tuition and mandatory fees at any Maryland public community college. Since it is a last-dollar scholarship, it only kicks in after other forms of financial aid have been applied.

Fine print

When applying to this College Promise scholarship, keep in mind:

  • Recipients must agree to find work in-state within one year of completing their degree.
  • Recipients must agree to work in the state for the same number of years as they received the scholarship. Failure to do so results in the scholarship converting to a loan.

Free college in Michigan

Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise program was expanded on in 2017 by Gov. Rick Snyder to increase the Promise Zones from 10 to 15 (although there are currently only 11 active zones). These Promise Zones award scholarships to high school graduates living within them.

Through a combination of Promise Zone scholarships, Pell Grants and other needs-based awards, Michigan offers students a pathway toward “tuition-free” college.

Who is eligible

In order to receive a Promise Zone scholarship, students must:

  • Be a Michigan resident
  • Live in one of the designated locality zones
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Meet grade point requirements as determined by each zone

Each of the 11 active Michigan Promise Zones has its own eligibility requirements for students.

What it covers

Every Promise Zone sets its own scholarship awards in terms of dollar amounts and which institutions scholarships can be used. However, all Promise Zones aim to provide every eligible student a tuition-free pathway to an associate degree. Some zones also extend these awards to bachelor’s degree programs or technical schools.

Fine print

Since every Promise Zone creates its own eligibility requirements, make sure to research thoroughly what students are responsible for and what they must achieve to continue to receive the scholarship.

Free community college in Missouri

The Missouri A+ Scholarship program awards last-dollar scholarships (meaning students must exhaust other forms of scholarships and financial aid first) to students from designated A+ high schools. Eligible students receive scholarships toward participating community colleges and vocational schools throughout Missouri.

Who qualifies

In order to be a part of the Missouri A+ program, students must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident
  • Enter into a written agreement with their high school prior to graduation
  • Attend a designated A+ high school for three years prior to graduation
  • Graduate with a 2.5 GPA or higher
  • Have a minimum 95% attendance rate between grades 9 and 12
  • Perform a minimum of 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or mentoring
  • Maintain a good record of citizenship and avoid unlawful drug or alcohol use
  • Have achieved a score of proficient or advanced on the Algebra I end-of-course exam or a higher level DESE-approved end-of-course exam in the field of mathematics
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Enroll full-time at a participating vocational school or community college
  • Maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.5 or complete 90% of their clock hours to renew their scholarship
  • Complete 12 credit hours (or six credits in the summer) each semester

What it covers

The Missouri A+ Scholarship will reimburse all tuition and general fees for eligible students after all forms of non-loan financial aid have been applied. Students must fill out a FAFSA every year in order to receive as much financial aid as possible before the A+ scholarship kicks in.

The state also sets a published standard per-credit tuition rate each year, which is the maximum students will be refunded. The 2018-2019 rate is $170.75 per credit-hour or $4.60 per clock-hour.

Students are eligible to receive the scholarship for a maximum of 48 months after high school graduation, until an associate degree is received or they’ve completed 105% of the hours required for their program of study.

Fine print

A few things to keep in mind when applying for the Missouri A+ Scholarship:

  • Repeated coursework for which students have already received a grade will not be reimbursed, e.g., retaking a course.
  • Some fees may not be reimbursed if there are insufficient state appropriations.
  • Students can defer their attendance if they are on active duty in the armed forces.

Free community college in Montana

The Montana Promise grant was created in 2017 for state residents attending two-year programs.

Who qualifies

In order to qualify, students must:

  • Be a Montana resident for 12 months prior to application
  • Have graduated high school or completed an equivalent program
  • Have earned a cumulative 2.5 GPA in high school
  • Have completed a FAFSA and accepted all available financial aid
  • Have not completed more than 60 credit hours at a postsecondary school or earned an associate degree prior to application

What it covers

Recipients of the Montana Promise grant will receive funds covering tuition after all other forms of financial aid have been exhausted. A student may only receive the Montana Promise grant for two years, and they must meet the academic and community service requirements each semester.

Fine print

  • Students must maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.7 in order to remain eligible.
  • Students must commit to eight hours of community service each semester they’re enrolled.

Free community college in Nevada

Enacted in 2017 by the Nevada legislature and signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandovol, the Nevada Promise Scholarship is a last-dollar scholarship (that is, it will cover costs after other financial aid is exhausted). It provides Nevada residents with financial aid toward any of the state’s four community colleges.

Who qualifies

To be eligible for the Nevada Promise Scholarship, applicants must:

  • Be a Nevada resident
  • Have received a high school diploma or GED within the past academic year
  • Apply to an eligible community college
  • Complete the Nevada Promise Scholarship application
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Be under the age of 20
  • Attend two mandatory trainings
  • Complete 20 hours of community service
  • Meet at least once with their college-assigned mentor
  • Enroll in a minimum of 12 credits for each semester of the school year following high school graduation

What it covers

The Nevada Promise Scholarship covers up to three years of tuition and mandatory fees to any of Nevada’s four community colleges. Since it is a last-dollar scholarship, students must first exhaust other forms of financial aid (grants, not loans), including federal Pell Grants, Silver State Opportunity Grants (SSOG) or the Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship (GGMS). While the scholarship does cover mandatory fees and tuition, it does not cover the cost of books, meal plans, transportation or school supplies.

Fine print

There are a few things to keep in mind when applying for the Nevada Promise Scholarship:

  • Students must not be in default on any federal student loans or owe a refund to the federal student aid program.
  • If there are more eligible students than there is funding, the scholarship will be awarded on a first come, first served basis.
  • Students must enroll full-time immediately after graduation.
  • Students must have a cumulative GPA of 2.5 to maintain eligibility.
  • Recipients must complete 20 hours of community service per academic year.
  • Students must meet with their assigned mentor at least once per semester.
  • The Nevada Promise Scholarship only applies to consecutive fall and spring semesters; it does not cover summer classes.

Free college in New Mexico

The New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship will pay a portion of eligible students’ tuition up to the completion of an undergraduate degree. The amount covered by the scholarship varies depending on the institution. This program was started in 1996 and has since helped more than 122,000 students attend New Mexico public colleges, universities and technical colleges.

Who qualifies?

In order to qualify for the New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship, students must:

  • Be a resident of New Mexico
  • Have completed high school in New Mexico or resided in New Mexico while earning a GED
  • Enroll at a New Mexico post-secondary education school within 16 months of high school completion
  • Enroll in and earn 15 credit hours per semester at a four-year New Mexico university or 12 credit hours per semester at a two-year New Mexico community college
  • Maintain a 2.5 cumulative GPA

What it covers

This scholarship covers a portion of tuition and does not cover other fees or course materials. How much students receive is determined by the institution to which they apply and the funds available.

In order to receive this scholarship, students must first enroll in a qualifying New Mexico university and have completed their first semester. It is then renewed on a per-semester basis if the eligibility criteria are met. Recipients of the scholarship can get up to seven semesters of funding at a four-year school or three semesters at a community college.

New Mexico also offers a Bridge Scholarship to help cover the costs of tuition for the first semester, prior to joining the lottery program. Bridge Scholarships are offered to New Mexico residents who have graduated from a state public high school or accredited private school, and they are only available to students in the first semester of college.

Fine print

If applying for the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship, it’s important to note:

  • Applicants must not have enrolled at any out-of-state post-secondary schools.
  • Students with disabilities may qualify for reduced credit-hour requirements.

Free community college in New Jersey

New Jersey launched a Debt-Free Promise Program through New Jersey City University in 2016. This program let’s incoming freshmen students with families earning less than $60,000 receive a scholarship instead of having to take out a loan.

Who qualifies

In order to qualify for the Debt-Free Promise Program, students must:

  • Be a New Jersey resident
  • Be admitted to New Jersey City University
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Have a family household income of $60,000 or less
  • Be an incoming freshman student pursuing their first undergraduate degree full-time

What it covers

Under the Debt-Free Promise Program, qualified students are given a scholarship that covers tuition and fees. This is a last-dollar program, meaning that students must first exhaust other federal and state financial aid before the scholarship kicks in. As of 2018, the program has been expanded to help cover the cost of books by offering a grant of $250 per semester for textbooks.

Fine print

It’s important to note a few things before applying to the Debt-Free Promise Program:

  • Students must fill out a FAFSA each year to renew the scholarship.
  • Students must be considered in good academic standing and full-time in order to be eligible (15 credits per semester).

Free college in New York

New York made history in April 2017 when the Excelsior Scholarship was signed into law. The program, which was originally proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January 2017, promises free tuition for in-state students attending two- or four-year colleges within the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems. This was the first College Promise program of its size and scope in the U.S., and it encompasses both four-year universities and community colleges within the state.

Who qualifies

To qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship in New York, applicants must:

  • Reside in New York state for 12 months prior to application submission
  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen
  • Have graduated high school within the U.S., earned a high school equivalency diploma or passed an “Ability to Benefit” test
  • Plan to attend an SUNY or CUNY campus for a two- or four-year degree
  • Complete 30 credits per year (minimum of 12 per semester)
  • Maintain good academic standing
  • Be on track to earn an associate degree in two years or bachelor’s degree in four years
  • Have a household income that does not exceed $125,000 for the 2019-2020 school year

What it covers

The Excelsior Scholarship is a last-dollar program, meaning students must first exhaust federal and state resources, scholarships and grants before the program kicks in. Students are awarded up to $5,500 for tuition and fees, minus any dollars received from Pell Grants, New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) or other scholarship awards.

Students who qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship will have their tuition covered at SUNY and CUNY schools via a credit, which goes directly to the institution and covers any remaining costs. It does not provide financial assistance for books, housing or transportation.

Fine print

  1. Students must live and work in New York for as many years as they are enrolled in the program: If a student fails to do so, the award converts to a loan.
  2. Students must apply for all applicable financial aid: This includes Pell Grants, TAP and other financial awards before applying to the program.

Free college in North Carolina

The 2016 North Carolina Promise plan reduces tuition rates for eligible recipients at Elizabeth City State University, Western Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Through the plan, the in-state tuition rate is set at $500 per semester, and out-of-state is set at $2,500 per semester.

North Carolina also offers a Fixed Tuition Program, which guarantees tuition rates do not rise for in-state students for up to eight consecutive semesters at 16 North Carolina universities. Find them here.

Who qualifies

The North Carolina Promise plan automatically kicks in once a student is accepted to any of the three eligible universities. In order to qualify for the Fixed Tuition Program, students must be eligible for in-state tuition and attending one of the 16 eligible universities.

What it covers

Under both the North Carolina Promise plan and the Fixed Tuition Program, the offer only applies to tuition. It does not cover any associated fees, housing, books or transportation expenses.

Under the North Carolina Promise plan, part-time undergraduate students are eligible for the program, although tuition is prorated and specific dollar amounts are set by the individual university.

Fine print

It’s important to note that neither of these programs is offered to graduate students.

Free college in Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Promise grant was created in 1992 to help low-income families receive higher education. Students who apply for the scholarship between 8th and 10th grade, meet income criteria and follow academic guidelines can receive a college scholarship.

Who qualifies

In order to receive an Oklahoma Promise scholarship, students must:

  • Apply to the scholarship between 8th and 10th grade
  • Not have a family income above $55,000 when applying and above $100,000 when renewing the scholarship during college years
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Complete the online application
  • Meet program curriculum requirements prior to graduating high school
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress, as determined by the college or university

What it covers

The Oklahoma Promise scholarship can be applied toward tuition, as well as other college costs, such as books, room and board, fees, etc. Students can receive other forms of financial aid to cover tuition, but if the total financial aid is greater than the total cost, the Oklahoma Promise scholarship may be withheld for that term. The actual amount given is dependent on how many credit hours a student is taking.

Fine print

Be sure to keep this in mind when applying to the Oklahoma Promise program:

  • Students have a five-year eligibility window to redeem their scholarship after graduation.
  • Students cannot receive award payments for more than 129 credit hours.

Free community college in Oregon

Oregon launched the Oregon Promise grant in 2016 after Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law in July 2015. It was one of the first statewide programs to ensure free community college tuition for all eligible students.

Who qualifies

To qualify for the Oregon Promise grant, applicants must:

  • Complete the Oregon Promise Grant Application prior to the deadline
  • Reside in Oregon 12 months prior to submitting an application
  • File a FAFSA or Oregon Student Aid Application (ORSAA) prior to the deadline
  • Have graduated high school or completed their GED no more than six months prior to applying
  • Have maintained a cumulative GPA of 2.5 of higher in high school or received a 145 grade on GED tests
  • Have completed or attempted no more than 90 college credits prior to application
  • Have an expected family contribution (EFC) of no more than $18,000 (2019-2020)

What it covers

The Oregon Promise grant covers tuition for any of the state’s community colleges. Recipients of the Oregon Promise grant in 2018-2019 received awards ranging from $1,000-$3,687 per year. This amount is based on a few factors:

  • How much money is received via FAFSA or ORSAA: The Oregon Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning applicants must first exhaust other financial aid resources before grant money is awarded.
  • Number of credits taken: Students must enroll in at least six credits per term (fall, winter, spring) to be awarded the grant. The grant covers up to 12 credits per term. If a student takes more than 12 credits, they are responsible for covering the cost of the extra credits.
  • Tuition at the community college: Award amounts for 2019-2020 range from $1,000 to $3,834. If a student attends a school that charges more than $3,834 (the average tuition of community college in Oregon), they are financially responsible for covering the difference.
  • 90-credit limit: The Oregon Promise covers up to 90 attempted credits. Once a student surpasses that number, they are no longer eligible.

Oregon Promise Grant amount eligibility by course load

Attempted credits per termEnrollment statusOregon Promise award amount
12 or more Full time100%
9-11Three-quarter time75%
6-8Three-quarter time50%

Fine print

The Oregon Promise has a number of stipulations that students must adhere to in order to receive their award each year.

  • A $50 co-pay is automatically deducted each semester.
  • Students must be enrolled for the fall term of every year to maintain eligibility.
  • Funding does not cover summer semester credits.
  • Students must maintain good academic standing: This standard is set by individual community colleges.
  • Students must attend if accepted: If a student is awarded the Oregon Promise grant but chooses not to attend community college, they can no longer use the grant.

Free community college in Rhode Island

Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the Rhode Island Promise into law in August 2017. It provides recent high school graduates in Rhode Island a path toward higher education, no matter their family’s income level.

Who qualifies

To qualify for the Rhode Island Promise, potential applicants must:

  • Be a Rhode Island resident
  • Be younger than 19 years old when they completed high school (public, private or home schooled) or GED program, and they must have completed this recently
  • Apply to the Community College of Rhode Island
  • Enroll the following semester after high school graduation as a full-time student
  • Fill out a FAFSA
  • Fill out the Rhode Island Promise Attestation form

What it covers

The Rhode Island Promise covers two years of tuition and fees for applicants. Students who receive the grant are entitled to tuition and fees for two years at the Community College of Rhode Island to complete an associate degree.

The Rhode Island Promise is a last-dollar scholarship. Students may also apply for other financial awards, such as Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (SEOG) or individual institution scholarships. The grant covers any remaining balance.

A key distinction of the Rhode Island Promise is there is no household income limit for applicants. So long as students adhere to the requirements above, they are eligible. Once they complete the program, students are not required to stay in the state, although they are encouraged to do so.

Fine print

While the Rhode Island Promise is a very generous grant, there are a few factors to consider.

  • Students must take a full course load every semester: Students who are considered part-time (less than 12 credits) during the add/drop period will not receive the scholarship, nor will they be eligible for future semesters.
  • Students must maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.5. If a GPA falls below 2.5, students have the ability to take summer classes; however, the Rhode Island Promise does not cover summer courses.
  • Students must complete 30 credits in the first year to renew the scholarship. To be eligible for a second year of the scholarship, students must have 30 credits. AP classes taken in high school can count toward this.

Free community college in South Dakota

South Dakota’s Build Dakota scholarship offers recipients full scholarships to four of the state’s technical institutes. The program applies only to those programs the state has determined as “high-need.” A full list of eligible programs can be found here. The scholarship is unique in that it accepts both in-state and out-of-state applicants. However, recipients must commit to working in South Dakota in their field for a minimum of three years after graduation.

Who qualifies

In order to qualify for the Build Dakota scholarship, applicants must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or U.S. national
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Demonstrate aptitude via one of the following:
    • The National Career Readiness Certificate or other industry-recognized certifications
    • Technical, dual or concurrent credit courses
    • Career and technical education coursework
    • Work-based learning experiences, internships or work experience
  • Enroll as a first-time student in a high-need field. Previous technical school or college experience is still accepted.

What it covers

The Build Dakota scholarship covers tuition, fees, books and other required expenses for the given program a recipient is accepted to (e.g., tools). It does not cover housing or living expenses. While the program does promise a full-ride to recipients, there are only a finite number of scholarships awarded each year. Currently, the Build Dakota program awards approximately 300 scholarships per year, and less than one third of the applicants are accepted.

Fine print

There are a few things to keep in mind when applying for the Build Dakota scholarship:

  • While there is no minimum GPA to apply to the program, recipients must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5 while enrolled.
  • Students who complete the program must work in their respective field in South Dakota for a minimum of three years. If they do not fulfill this requirement, the scholarship will convert to interest-bearing debt.

Free community college in Tennessee

Tennessee became the first state to sign wide-ranging free community college legislation for all residents in May 2014 when the Tennessee Promise was passed. Unlike previous programs, which were confined to certain localities or had other restrictions, such as income, the Tennessee Promise provided all eligible Tennessee students a pathway to higher education. Championed by Gov. Bill Haslam, the Tennessee Promise has paved the way for many other states to create similar free-college programs. As of the end of the 2017-2018 school year, more than 51,000 students had enrolled in the program.

Who qualifies

To qualify for the Tennessee Promise, applicants must:

  • Be a Tennessee resident and a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Be under the age of 19 after graduating high school or GED program
  • Have recently graduated from high school (public, private, home school) or recently received their GED
  • Enroll as a full-time student for the fall semester following graduation
  • Attend a mandatory meeting in applicant’s local area
  • Complete eight hours of community service every semester prior to the start of the semester

What it covers

The Tennessee Promise scholarship is a last-dollar scholarship that covers tuition and fees for any of the state’s 27 colleges of applied technology, 13 community colleges or in-state public four-year colleges that offer a two-year program. It does not cover the cost of books, transportation or room and board. The scholarship is applied after all other forms of financial aid have been exhausted.

While the scholarship has no household income requirements, the program does focus on attracting low-income, at-risk students by sending representatives to high schools across the state to educate students about the program. According to the Tennessee Promise Annual Report of 2019, the average award for the spring 2018 semester for students was $1,033 per student.

A unique aspect of the Tennessee Promise scholarship is the program’s emphasis on mentor guidance. In addition to the money eligible students receive, the state has recruited more than 32,000 volunteers since the program’s start in 2009, according to its 2017 annual report. The goal of a mentor, who is given a maximum of 10 students, is to make the road to college as clear as possible for students. Training is provided to mentors, and students must meet with their mentors at a mandatory meeting held at their high school before the start of fall semester. Students are encouraged to meet and communicate with their mentors leading up to and during their transition to college.

Fine print

There are a few things to keep in mind when applying for the Tennessee Promise scholarship:

  • Students must attend for consecutive semesters as a full-time student. A gap in enrollment or a drop to part-time status results in ineligibility for the program.
  • Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA.
  • Missing a mandatory meeting could result in permanent ineligibility.
  • Students must complete eight hours of community service every semester.

Free college in Washington

Washington’s 2007 College Bound Scholarship is an early commitment to higher education. Low-income families sign up while their children are in middle school, and through the program they can receive a scholarship to public or private two- or four-year schools, technical schools or private career schools.

Who qualifies

In order to qualify for this program, students must:

  • Apply while in 7th or 8th grade
  • Be a Washington resident
  • Meet family household income requirements or be receiving government assistance via food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Family income limits vary depending on household size. For example, a family of four cannot exceed an annual income of $46,435 to be eligible for the program.

2018-19 Income Chart

Household SizeAnnual Income Guidelines*Monthly IncomeWeekly Income
Each additional household memberAdd $7,992Add $666Add $154


  • Graduate from a state high school or home school with a cumulative 2.0 GPA
  • Enroll in college within one year of graduation
  • Have no felony convictions
  • Complete a FAFSA
  • Remain in good standing while in college

What it covers

The Washington College Bound Scholarship can be used at more than 60 state schools and programs. It is combined with other state aid to cover tuition and some fees and provide a small book allowance. It can cover up to eight full-time semesters for students.

Fine print

  1. Students have a five-year window from the time they graduate high school to collect the award, but they must enroll in college within one year of graduation.
  2. Student must be enrolled in at least three credits per term.

Free college in Wyoming

Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship was created in 2005 by lawmakers who set up a $400 million permanent endowment for those attending the University of Wyoming or any of the state’s seven community colleges. There are four types of merit-based Hathaway scholarships and one need-based award.

While the scholarship can extend to eligible students for all four years of college, the merit-based scholarship awards are determined by a student’s performance in high school. This determines how much a student can receive through their undergraduate years.

Who qualifies

In order to qualify for any of the four Wyoming Hathaway Scholarships, students must be Wyoming residents and must apply within 48 months of their graduation date. Other criteria depends on which scholarship you’re applying for:

  • Honors Scholarship: Graduating students must complete Hathaway-approved courses, have a minimum 3.5 GPA and score 25 on the ACT/1200 on the SAT.
  • Performance Scholarship: Graduating students must complete Hathaway-approved courses, have a minimum 3.0 GPA and score a 21 on the ACT/1060 on the SAT.
  • Opportunity Scholarship: Graduating students must complete Hathaway-approved courses, have a minimum 2.5 GPA and score 19 on the ACT/990 on the SAT.
  • Provisional Opportunity Scholarship: Graduating students must complete Hathaway-approved courses, have a minimum 2.0 GPA and 17 on the ACT/900 on the SAT.

The rules for keeping the Hathaway Scholarship throughout college also depends on which scholarship you receive:

  • Students who received an Honors or Performance scholarship must maintain a GPA of 2.5.
  • Students who received an Opportunity or Provisional Opportunity scholarship must maintain a GPA of 2.25.
  • Students must maintain continuous enrollment throughout college. Skipping a semester results in ineligibility.
  • Students must also complete at least six credits per semester if studying part-time or 12 credits per semester if full-time.

What it covers

Scholarship recipients can receive:

  • Honors: $1,680 maximum award per semester
  • Performance: $1,260 maximum award per semester
  • Opportunity: $840 maximum award per semester
  • Provisional Opportunity: $840 maximum award per semester

These funds are available as a last-dollar scholarship (meaning it can only be used after other financial aid is exhausted) for tuition at the University of Wyoming or any of the state’s seven community colleges.

Fine print

Students considering the Hathaway Scholarship should keep in mind:

  • Home-schooled students have until the age of 21 to take advantage of the scholarship, subject to ACT scores.
  • The scholarship does not cover remedial college courses.

How to leverage your community college degree

Students who receive an associate degree can save dramatically on tuition costs for the same length of stay at a four-year college. The College Board reported that for the 2018-2019 school year, the average cost of tuition for an associate degree was $3,660 per year at a public institution versus $10,230 per year for in-state students at a public four-year university. That compares to a whopping $26,290 for out-of-state students at a public university.

One way to minimize the cost of college is to take core classes and electives at a community college before transferring to a four-year school. This strategy allows students to take the same classes they would at a four-year college, but without the higher price. Once completed, students can transfer to a four-year school to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Students already enrolled in a four-year university can still take advantage of these savings by taking approved electives and core classes over the summer at a community college. This strategy can help students graduate on time and save money.

Pros and cons of transferring to a four-year school

The main benefit of attending a community college prior to a four-year school is the cost savings. Depending on a student’s situation, they can live at home and commute to school, eliminating room and board costs, which averaged $11,140 for the 2018-2019 school year at public, four-year institutions, according to the College Board.

Students transferring from a community college to a four-year school generally have a clear pathway, so long as they are in good academic standing. However, it’s important to make sure the credits will transfer. This is especially true if a student changes majors upon transferring. For example, a student who took core classes for a history major at community college but then switches to a biology major at a four-year college may have to retake certain courses.

Alternatives to community college

Community college is not the only way to learn new skills and increase your earning potential. While traditional two- and four-year college programs can open up job opportunities, it’s important to note there are other pathways to career success.


Apprenticeships offer students a way to learn a specific skill or trade without the burden of student debt, while also earning a wage. While many apprenticeships apply to certain trade skills, such as electrical, plumbing or construction work, there has been a rise recently in the popularity of registered apprenticeships thanks to a U.S. Department of Labor initiative.

Since January 2017, more than 500,000 new apprenticeships have been created, and the Trump administration has set up a Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. In June 2019, the Employment & Training Administration announced more than $100 million in grants to expand apprenticeships and close the skills gap for students and workers. An additional $183.8 million of funding has been awarded as Scaling Apprenticeship Through Sector-Based Strategies grants, which aim to develop public-private apprenticeship programs within the health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing industries.

The Labor Department lists a variety of resources for finding and learning more about apprenticeships.

Certificate programs

Certificate programs allow students to become experts in certain skills and industries without committing to a full undergraduate or graduate degree. Intensive programs can be a short as 10 to 12 weeks, while others may take three years or more to complete, depending on education level and area of interest.

Certificate programs are becoming widely popular within the information technology industry due to the salary boost that comes with them. The 2018 IT Skills and Salary Report from Global Knowledge found the average salary difference between certified and non-certified employees within North America is 22%, or $15,913.

Certificate programs can be found at community colleges, graduate schools and online schools across the globe. Popular programs vary for different levels of education. For example, getting certified as a yoga or pilates instructor requires fewer prior education requirements than someone looking to become a Certified Financial Planner.

Trade school

Designed to teach students skills related to a specific career, trade schools give students hands-on learning that directly applies to specific careers. One of the major benefits of attending a trade school, also known as a vocational school, are the job placement programs that come with them. Many vocational schools have strong ties to certain industries, giving students a clear pathway toward earning their first paycheck.

Popular trade school programs include automotive, plumbing, electrical and HVAC, among others, and they can be found in high schools, community colleges and for-profit industry trade schools across the country.

If you’re seriously considering trade school, be sure to do your due diligence. The Federal Trade Commission has warned that some for-profit trade schools misrepresent what they can offer students.

To avoid losing out on a quality education, prospective students should look for schools that are licensed by state agencies or accredited by a legitimate organization. Also be sure to find out the percentage of graduates who find work after finishing the program and the average starting salaries.

Whatever higher education path you take, be sure to look into local and state-run scholarships and grant programs. Research all your options, and plan your finances well ahead of time.

The information in this article is accurate as of the date of publishing.