Guide to Free Community College in the U.S.

Posted February 21, 2018 1:39 p.m. EST

Free community college in the U.S. is starting to become a reality. Since 2014, four states have signed into law “College Promise” programs aimed at delivering subsidized higher education to their residents. Numerous cities across the U.S. have also taken notice, enacting localized scholarships that cover the costs of two-year college programs.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

The history of the free college movement in the United States

Where you can go to community college for free

What you need to know

  • The free community college movement
  • Free college in New York
  • Free community college in Oregon
  • Free community college in Rhode Island
  • Free community college in Tennessee

How to leverage your community college degree

Alternatives to community college

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

Where you can go to community college for free

There are currently 10 statewide free community college programs enacted across the U.S.:

The fight for free community college tuition is growing rapidly at the local level as well. There are notable free community college programs in:

  • San Francisco
  • Chicago
  • Long Beach, Calf.
  • Kalamazoo, Mich.

For this article, we’ll be focusing on New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee due to the level of funding and reach of the state programs.

New York


Rhode Island


What you need to know

The free community college movement

Over the past four 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. They are a bipartisan group that works with elected officials, leaders and policy experts to make public colleges tuition-free.

In addition, former 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 award federal-state partnership grants to states who waive tuition and fees for students wanting to attend community college.

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

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) campuses. This is the first college promise program in the U.S. to encompass 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 a SUNY or CUNY campus for a two- or four-year degree
  • Complete 30 credits a year (minimum of 12 a semester)
  • Maintain good academic standing
  • Be on track to earn an associate’s degree in two years or bachelor’s degree in four years
  • Applicant’s household income must not exceed:
    • $100,000 for the 2017-2018 school year
    • $110,000 for the 2018-2019 school year
    • $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

  • Must live and work in New York for as many years as enrolled in the program: If a student fails to do so, the award converts over to a loan.
  • Students must apply for all applicable financial aid: This includes Pell Grants, TAP and other financial awards before applying to the program.
  • Free community college in Oregon

    Oregon launched the Oregon Promise state grant in 2016 after Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law in July 2015.

    Oregon was the second state to enact a free community college tuition program, following Tennessee in 2014. The program is set to cover tuition and fee gaps for students looking to attend Oregon state community colleges.

    Who qualifies

    To qualify for the Oregon Promise Grant, applicants must:

    • Complete the Oregon Promise Grant Application prior to deadline
    • Reside in Oregon 12 months prior to submitting an application
    • File a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or Oregon Student Aid Application (ORSAA)
    • 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 $20,000 (2017-2018)

    What it covers

    The Oregon Promise Grant covers tuition and fees for any of the state’s community colleges. Recipients of the Oregon Promise Grant can expect to receive awards ranging from $1,000-$3,540 per year. This amount is based on a few factors:

  • How much money 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 6 credits per semester (Fall, Winter, Spring) to be awarded the grant. The grant covers up to 12 credits per semester. 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 2017-2018 range from $1,000 to $3,540. If a student attends a school that charges tuition more than $3,540 (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 term

    Enrollment status

    Oregon Promise award amount

    12 or more

    Full time



    Three-quarter time



    Half time



    Fine print

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

  • $50 co-pay is automatically deducted each semester.
  • Must be enrolled for the fall term of every year to maintain eligibility.
  • Does not cover summer semester credits.
  • Students must complete a First Year Experience: This typically includes meeting with an academic adviser, and some taking online modules.
  • Must maintain good academic standing: This standard is set by individual community colleges.
  • 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. *As of July 2017, some students may be eligible to differ their Oregon Promise grant for six months.
  • Free community college in Rhode Island

    Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the “Rhode Island Promise” into law in January 2017. It provides recent 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 Rhode Island resident
    • Be younger than 19 years old when you completed high school or GED program
    • Have recently graduated high school (public, private or home schooled) or recently received a GED
    • 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 Promise are entitled to tuition and fees for two years at the Community College of Rhode Island to complete an associate’s degree.

    Like New York, 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 that 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, though they are encouraged.

    Fine print

    While the Rhode Island Promise is a very generous grant, there are a few things 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 towards this.
  • Free community college in Tennessee

    Tennessee became the first state to offer free community college to all residents in May 2014, when the Tennessee Promise was signed into law. Championed by Gov. Bill Haslam, the Tennessee Promise has paved the way for many of the other states to create similar free college programs. As of February 2017, over 33,000 students had enrolled in the program.

    Who qualifies

    To qualify for the Tennessee Promise, applicants must:

    • Be a Tennessee resident
    • U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
    • Apply for the Tennessee Promise scholarship
    • 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 colleges of applied technology (TCATs), 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 working with high school guidance counselors across the state. According to the TN Achieves report, the average award for the 2016-2017 year was $1,090 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 over 32,000 volunteers since the programs start in 2009. 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 two mandatory meetings held in each county before the start of fall semester.

    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 down to part-time student results in ineligibility for the program.
  • Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA.
  • Missing a mandatory meeting results in permanent ineligibility.
  • Students must complete eight hours of community service every semester.
  • How to leverage your community college degree

    Students who obtain an associate’s degree save over 60% in the cost of tuition and fees when compared with the same costs at a four-year college. The American Association of Community Colleges reported that for the 2016-2017 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees for a four-year public in-state college was $9,650, compared with community colleges that charged $3,520.

    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 a student would be taking at a four-year college, without the price tag of a four-year college. Once completed, students can transfer to a four-year college to complete their bachelor’s degree.

    Students already enrolled in a four-year school 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 living situation, many can live at home and commute to community college. This eliminates room and board costs, which are an average of $10,800 for the 2017-2018 school year, 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 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 switches to a biology major at a four-year college may have to retake certain core classes.

    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. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “87 percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs, with an average starting wage above $50,000 per year.” The recent rise in the popularity of registered apprenticeships is thanks to a labor department initiative, ApprenticeshipUSA, which received $10.4 million in accelerator grants at the start of 2017.

    While many apprenticeships apply to certain trade skills like electrical or construction work, there are apprenticeships in the health care, business, hospitality, energy industries, as well as others. 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 up to three years to complete, depending on education level and area of interest.

    Certificate programs are becoming widely popular within the IT industry due to the salary boost that comes with them. The Global Knowledge 2017 IT Skills and Salary report found that the difference between salaries of certified vs. noncertified IT employees was 11.7 percent, or $8,400 a year.

    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 less 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 vocational schools, are the job placement programs that come along 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 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 on the school. The FTC warns 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 (like the Department of Education), or accredited by a legitimate organization. Other good information to find out would be: “What percentage of graduates found work after graduation?” and “What are the average starting salaries of graduates?”

    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 ahead of time.

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