States That Offer Residents Tuition-Free College

New York, Tennessee, Oregon and Rhode Island lead the way.
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States That Offer Residents Tuition-Free College

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship is the first of its kind in the U.S. to extend tuition-free college to qualifying bachelor degree seekers at four-year colleges. But there are other state programs that offer free tuition for two-year programs.

Free tuition doesn’t equal free college, though. You’ll still need to cover costs such as fees, room and board and transportation. You can pay using a combination of savings, grants, scholarships, work-study and student loans.

If you plan to take out loans, max out federal loans by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, before turning to private student loans, since the latter come with higher interest rates and don’t offer certain protections or loan forgiveness opportunities. Always shop around to compare offers before taking out a private student loan.

» MORE: Free college programs will still cost you

Here’s more on New York’s program and a roundup of other state-sponsored, tuition-free college programs:

Four-year free college tuition program

New York

Program: Excelsior Scholarship

What it is: The program covers tuition and fees to incoming freshman attending an undergraduate degree-granting school in the State University of New York system or the City University of New York system. Tuition and fees at a SUNY school cost residents $8,110 for 2016-2017. It will become available to families and individuals making up to $125,000.

It will become available to families and individuals making up to $125,000 by 2019.

Who qualifies: Incoming 2017 freshman enrolled full time in two-year or four-year programs at SUNY and CUNY schools. The initiative will be phased in over three years by family annual income limits: up to $100,000 in fall 2017; $110,000 annual income in 2018; and $125,000 annual income in 2019.

Caveats:

  • Program does not cover room and board: typical room and board at a SUNY campus is $12,590 (2016-17)
  • Fees, which vary by institution, are not covered; typical fees at SUNY are $1,640 (2016-17)
  • Must take the 30 credits annually needed to graduate on time, including summer sessions, but the program can accommodate for hardship
  • Individual colleges will determine GPA requirements for eligibility
  • Must use need-based federal Pell Grant aid or a New York Tuition Assistance grant first, if they qualify
  • Students required to live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they received the scholarship while in school
  • If a student doesn’t remain in New York to live and work after graduation, the scholarship converts to a loan to be repaid to the state

Community college free-tuition programs

Tennessee

Program: Tennessee Promise

What it is: It became available in the 2015-16 academic year and is for students who attend an eligible community or technical two-year college. It will cover last dollars from tuition and fee costs not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship, Wilder-Naifeh grant or Tennessee Student Assistance Award funds. Tennessee Promise can be used at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or at any of the eligible public and private universities with two-year programs.

Tennessee Promise can be used at any of the state’s 13 community colleges.


Who qualifies: Tennessee residents who graduate from an eligible Tennessee high school or home school program or who obtain an equivalency diploma before the age of 19.

Caveats:

  • Attending mentoring meetings is mandatory to remain eligible for the program
  • Eight hours of community service per term enrolled is required
  • Must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA
  • Must be enrolled full time in the fall term following high school graduation

Program: Tennessee Reconnect

What it is: The most recent tuition-free community college program to become available in the U.S. It provides the same last-dollar benefits as Tennessee Promise, but for adults over age 24. It launches in fall 2018.

Who qualifies: Tennessee adults ages 24 and older

Caveats:

  • Complete the FAFSA and obtain status as an independent student
  • Hold no prior associate or bachelor’s degree
  • Establish Tennessee residency at least one year before applying
  • Be admitted to an eligible institution and be enrolled at least part time
  • Participate in an advising program
  • Maintain continuous enrollment and a 2.0 GPA

Oregon

Program: Oregon Promise

What it is: A state grant that launched in fall 2016 to cover most tuition costs at any Oregon community college.

Who qualifies: Recent Oregon high school graduates or GED recipients. High school graduates must have a 2.5 GPA or higher. Must be a resident of Oregon for at least 12 months prior to attendance.

Caveats:

  • Recipients must maintain at least half-time continuous enrollment during fall, winter and spring terms
  • Covers up to 12 credits per term and a maximum of 90 credits attempted
  • Must accept all state and federal grant aid offered through a community college’s financial aid office
  • Complete a First-Year Experience program at the community college, which will vary by school

Rhode Island

Program: Rhode Island Promise Scholarship

What it is: Starting in fall 2017, new Rhode Island high school graduates and GED recipients are eligible for two years of free tuition and payment of mandatory fees at the state’s Community College of Rhode Island.

It will cover last dollars from tuition and fee costs not covered by the Pell grant and other aid. The FAFSA form and an Attestation of Understanding Form are all that’s required to receive the funds, which are distributed to the school and applied directly to the student’s bill. 

Who qualifies: Rhode Island residents who are 2017 high school graduates or 2017 GED recipients who were younger than 19 years old when high school or the GED were completed

Caveats:

• Must maintain full-time enrollment each fall and spring semester for two years

• Must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA

• Must earn 30 credits each year

• Recipients are asked to live, work or continue education in Rhode Island post-graduation, but there is no penalty to students who do not comply

CALIFORNIA

Program: California College Promise Grant

What it is: A new program providing free community college for one year to all California residents. It’s a first-dollar program, unlike all other state free tuition programs, which means it covers tuition before any other financial aid is awarded. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law on Oct. 13, 2017.

Who qualifies: California residents who are first-time college students. Students must submit the FAFSA or a California Dream Act application to qualify.

Caveats:

  • Students must be enrolled full time, meaning 12 or more semester units or the equivalent
  • The program is available for only one academic year

Limited free-tuition community college programs

Minnesota

Program: MnSCU Two-Year Occupational Grant pilot program

What it is: A two-year pilot program that covers tuition and fee charges for eligible career and technical programs at MnSCU two-year colleges after a student’s Pell Grant and MN State Grant are applied. Students can use the grant for up to 72 semester credits. It was first implemented for the 2016-17 academic year and will extend through the 2017-18 academic year.

Who qualifies: Minnesota residents who enrolled during fall semester 2016 in qualifying programs immediately after graduating high school, completing a 12- or 24-month AmeriCorps program that started right after high school graduation a prior year, completing an Adult Basic Education program or passing a GED test. Students or their parents must have an adjusted gross income of $90,000 or less for the 2015 tax year.

Caveats:

  • Must participate in free mentoring services throughout the pilot program
  • Must be enrolled in a qualifying occupational program, which limits participation
  • It is a pilot program so future participation is unknown

Arkansas

Program: ArFuture grant

What it is: Pays the full cost of two years of tuition and fees for community and technical college for students in Arkansas who enroll in a high-demand field of study. It was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March 2017 and will be available beginning with the 2017-18 academic year.

Who qualifies: Arkansas high school graduates with established residency. There is no GPA necessary and recipients can enroll part time or full time at any in-state community college. Students must submit a FAFSA and apply for a federal Pell Grant, but the grant can be used along with state aid.

Caveats:

  • Available on a first-come, first-served basis
  • Students must enroll in high-demand field of study or STEM field
  • Required to meet monthly with a program mentor
  • Must complete eight hours of community service per semester
  • Following graduation, must work full time in Arkansas for a minimum of three years; otherwise, the grant will be converted to a loan for repayment to the state

Kentucky

Program: Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship

What it is: The program provides free tuition, beginning in the 2017-18 school year, to students in Kentucky who pursue a two-year degree in an in-demand workforce sector. It was signed into law by an executive order from Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in December 2016. It’s a last-dollar program, up to the maximum amount, after federal and state grants and scholarships. The estimated tuition and fees amount for the 2017-18 school year is $3,900.

Who qualifies: Kentucky residents with a high school degree or GED who have not earned an associate’s or higher degree. Students must be enrolled at an eligible two-year postsecondary institution in an approved program of study.

Caveats:

  • Must study programs that lead to jobs that funnel into one of five industries: health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation/logistics, business services/IT and construction
  • What qualifies as in-demand workforce sectors may change over time
  • The scholarship is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis
  • Students can receive a scholarship for up to 32 credit hours of enrollment, but no more than four academic terms

Local and city free-tuition programs

You can also look for tuition-free scholarship programs offered through high schools, colleges and universities nationwide. Typically students will have to reside in a certain location, attend a certain school or have low income.

At Texas State University, for example, the Bobcat Promise program offers free tuition and fees for qualifying Texas residents from low-income families.

In San Francisco, Mayor Edwin M. Lee announced in February that starting fall 2017, City College, a two-year community college, will provide tuition-free access to all California residents living in the city.

And in May, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced a new last-dollar program called Boston Bridge would become available to all high school graduates living in the city beginning with the class of 2017.  


Anna Helhoski is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: anna@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski