Several state programs offer free tuition for two-year and four-year programs. But free tuition doesn’t equal free college.
Students who attend tuition-free schools 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.
Here’s a roundup of state-sponsored, tuition-free college programs. Many are “last-dollar” scholarship programs, which means the money covers remaining tuition only after federal and state grant money is applied.
Four-year free college tuition
What it is: The program covers tuition to incoming freshmen attending an undergraduate-degree-granting school in the State University of New York system or the City University of New York system. It will become available to families and individuals making up to $125,000 by 2019.
Who qualifies: Freshmen enrolled full time in two-year or four-year programs at SUNY and CUNY schools. The initiative began in fall 2017 and will continue phasing in over the next two years, according to family annual income limits: $110,000 annual income in 2018; and $125,000 annual income in 2019.
• Program does not cover room and board; typical room and board at a SUNY campus is $12,810 (2017-2018)
• Fees, which vary by institution, are not covered
• 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 qualified
• 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
What it is: Provides Indiana students with up to four years of undergraduate tuition at any participating public college or university in Indiana or partial tuition at a private college.
Who qualifies: Indiana students who complete all Scholar Success program requirements and are accepted for admission at an eligible Indiana college. Students must submit a FAFSA to be eligible.
• High school students must earn at least 2.5 GPA
• High school students must complete a Scholar Success Program, fulfilling requirements at each grade level
• Must graduate with a Core 40 diploma
• Must complete at least 30 credit hours each year in college
Community college free tuition
What it is: A 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 October 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.
• Students must be enrolled full time, meaning 12 or more semester units or the equivalent
• The program is available for only one academic year
What it is: A scholarship program that covers tuition for full-time students for two-year programs at University of Delaware for its Associate of Arts degree program or any program at Delaware Technical Community College.
Who qualifies: High school graduates in Delaware. Undocumented students may apply. Students must be accepted at one of two participating schools. Students must submit a FAFSA to be eligible. Students with the most financial need are given priority.
• The scholarship is only available the fall after a student graduates from high school
• Must be enrolled full-time
• Must apply no later than April 1 of senior year of high school
• Must apply each year no later than April 1 for the following year
• Cannot receive the scholarship more than six continuous semesters
• Must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA
What it is: A last-dollar need-based scholarship to attend University of Hawaii Community Colleges. It launched in fall 2017.
Who qualifies: Hawaii state residents or those who qualify for residency-exempt status that pay in-state tuition. Students must complete a FAFSA to apply.
• Must remain enrolled in at least six credits per semester within the UH system
• Cannot possess a bachelor’s degree.
• Must meet Hawaii Community College Satisfactory Academic Progress policy
• Must accept all federal and state grants, scholarships and any other funding sources first
• Must be degree-seeking in a financial-aid-eligible program
What it is: A renewable scholarship program that provides funds to graduates of eligible Missouri high schools who attend a participating public community college or vocational school in the state.
Who qualifies: Missouri high school students who attend a designated A+ high school for three years prior to graduation and meet all GPA, attendance, volunteer, academic and citizenship requirements. Students must submit the FAFSA to be eligible.
• Must enroll and attend full time at a participating public community college or vocational/technical school
• Cannot pursue a degree in theology or divinity
• Must qualify for federal student aid
• To renew, students must maintain a 2.5 GPA, submit a FAFSA and be enrolled full time
What it is: A last-dollar community college grant program for Montana residents enrolled in two-year colleges. The program was signed into law in April 2017.
Who qualifies: Students in a community or tribal college in Montana or at a two-year school in the Montana university system. Students must submit a FAFSA and have accepted all federal and state aid grants available.
• Must be enrolled at least half time
• Must not have earned an associate degree or completed more than 60 credit hours at any postsecondary institution
• Must demonstrate a GPA of at least 2.5
• Must be a resident of Montana for at least 12 months before applying
• Must be a high school graduate or hold a high school equivalency certificate
What it is: A last-dollar scholarship that enables Nevada residents to attend any of the state’s four community colleges: College of Southern Nevada, Great Basin College, Truckee Meadows Community College or Western Nevada College. It was established by the Nevada Legislature in 2017. The scholarship was funded only for the high school graduating class of 2018, but the scholarships may receive additional funding by the 2019 Nevada Legislature for another year.
Who qualifies: Nevada residents under the age of 20 with a high school diploma from a public or private high school located in Nevada or in a county of another state that borders Nevada and accepts Nevada residents, or a high school equivalency. For eligibility, students must complete the Nevada Promise Scholarship application, apply for admission at one of the participating community colleges, file a FAFSA, and complete community service and mentoring requirements.
• Must participate in two mandatory informational trainings
• Must provide proof of 20 hours of community service
• Must complete at least one mentoring opportunity before applying for the scholarship
• Cannot hold a prior associate or bachelor’s degree
• Cannot be in default on any federal student loan or owe a refund to any federal student aid program
What it is: Oklahoma residents will receive tuition at an Oklahoma public two-year college or four-year university. It would also cover a portion of tuition at an Oklahoma accredited private college or university, or public technology centers that are eligible for financial aid. It was created in 1992.
Who qualifies: Students must be Oklahoma residents enrolled in the eighth, ninth or 10th grade in an Oklahoma high school, whose families earn $55,000 or less per year.
• Applications must be completed during the school year in the student’s eighth, ninth or 10th grade academic year
• Must complete required courses in high school
• Parents’ AGI must not exceed $100,000 before receiving any funds
• Students must meet regular admission standards for first-time entering students and be enrolled in an eligible postsecondary school to receive funds
• The student has three years from the time of high school graduation to start taking postsecondary courses and cannot receive the award after five years from first enrolling in an eligible postsecondary school
• Award money cannot be used for courses after completing a bachelor’s degree
• Students must meet eligibility requirements to receive federal financial aid based on the school’s Satisfactory Academic Progress policy
• Any student suspended for college for more than one semester for conduct reasons will lose the scholarship permanently
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.
• 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
• Students must complete a First-Year Experience program at the community college, which will vary by school
What it is: 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 graduated from high school in or after 2017, or GED recipients who were younger than 19 years old when high school or the GED was completed, in or after 2017.
• Must maintain full-time enrollment every fall and spring semester for two years
• Must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA
• Must earn 30 credits every 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
What it is: It became available in the 2015-2016 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 eligible public and private universities with two-year programs.
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.
• Attending mentoring meetings is mandatory to remain eligible for the program
• Eight hours of community service per term enrolled are 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, starting in fall 2018.
Who qualifies: Tennessee adults ages 24 and older
• Students must complete the FAFSA and obtain status as an independent student
• Cannot hold a 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
• Participation in an advising program is required
• Must maintain continuous enrollment and a 2.0 GPA
Limited free-tuition community college
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 began with the 2017-18 academic year.
Who qualifies: Arkansas high school graduates with established residency. There is no minimum GPA requirement 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.
• 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
What it is: The program provides free tuition 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. It began with the 2017-18 school year.
Who qualifies: Kentucky residents with a high school degree or GED who have not earned an associate degree or higher. Students must be enrolled at an eligible two-year postsecondary institution in an approved program of study.
• 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
What it is: A scholarship program providing tuition, fees, books and other required program expenses in eligible technical institute programs for students who intend to work in a high-need field in South Dakota.
Who qualifies: In-state and out-of-state students of all ages who attend one of four technical institutes in South Dakota: Lake Area Technical Institute, Mitchell Technical Institute, Southeast Technical Institute or Western Dakota Technical Institute. Students must submit the FAFSA to be eligible. Students must demonstrate aptitude through work-based learning, career and technical education coursework, completing credit courses in their field of study or receiving an industry-recognized certification in their career area.
• Recipients must continue living and working in the state in their field of study for three years after graduation
• Students must enroll as a first-time student in a high-need program. Students with previous college or technical institute attendance are accepted.
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. Some examples of programs include:
- Bobcat Promise program at Texas State University offers free tuition and fees for qualifying Texas residents from low-income families.
- City College of San Francisco’s Free City program provides tuition-free access to all California residents living in the city.
- Boston Bridge, a last-dollar free-college program, is available to all Massachusetts high school graduates living in the city.
- New Haven Promise, an annual award covering up to full tuition at a Connecticut public two-year or four-year college or university to students living in New Haven and attending a New Haven Public School.