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There are at least 23 states that offer free community college tuition to some students.
"Free" doesn't necessarily mean your education will carry no cost. Students are often expected to cover fees, room and board and transportation.
In addition, free community college often comes with requirements that limit who qualifies. For example, receiving free tuition can depend on income, residency, previous education, age and other factors. In addition, there are restrictions concerning your field of study in some states, such as Kentucky, that may affect your eligibility to receive free tuition.
Where is community college free?
The states offering free community college currently include Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
The states and localities that offer free community college change often. The best way to find a program you can benefit from is to search for grants or "promise programs" in your state or local area. The financial aid administrators at your local community college also may know of available programs.
If there is a free community college program available to you, be sure you qualify — and in some cases, are accepted — before assuming you'll get free tuition. Depending on the program, there can be many necessary eligibility qualifications.
Some states, such as Michigan, offer free community college for individuals with particular circumstances. For example, the Michigan Reconnect program makes "in-district" community colleges accessible for residents over 25 who lack any college education.
Local residents are considered in-district. District designations differ between states, but generally, an out-of-district community college student will have to pay higher tuition than an in-district student. This is similar to how traditional four-year colleges use in-state designations to determine tuition eligibility. You can typically find in-district designations on the community college's website.
Although some states have made community college free for residents, the initiative has yet to be passed at the federal level. In 2021, early versions of the Build Back Better social spending bill included a proposal for free community college for students across the country. But, after much compromise, the free community college provision was cut from the act.
The FAFSA can reduce the cost of community college
Regardless of where you're considering attending college, it's crucial to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Apply for federal aid before seeking out any private student loans for community college.
In some of the states that offer free community college, it's free only if you submit the FAFSA. The programs in place are often "last dollar," meaning they cover the difference between the cost of attendance and the sum of any grants or other aid that doesn't have to be repaid.
Even if free community college isn't an option where you live, federal student aid received from the FAFSA can significantly reduce your tuition. The 2021-22 annual limit on the Pell Grant, which is aid you don't have to repay, is $6,495. You can qualify for the Pell Grant each year in school for up to roughly six years or 12 academic terms.
The average community college tuition and fees were just $3,800 for resident students attending their local college, according to the College Board. Given that, the Pell Grant can cover tuition. Keep in mind that the Pell Grant is awarded based on demonstrated need and the cost of tuition; nonetheless, there is no income limit to qualify.