Here are All the States with Free College Plans

Map of US States with Free Tuition

Everyone knows that college is expensive. The more expensive it gets, the more likely students will need to take out student loans in order to cover their expenses; gone are the days of being able to cover your next year’s tuition with a summer job like our parents did.

Wouldn’t it be great if college was free? Yeah, we all know that that was a big part of Bernie Sanders’s platform in the 2016 presidential primaries, but Sanders didn’t win the nomination, and the Dems didn’t win the presidency. And I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the Republicans, from Congress to the Senate to the President, have no intention of making free college education a right for all Americans. Looks like free college tuition will remain a pipe dream for a while longer, right?

Wrong. The truth is, states are starting to step in to address this issue by starting free college tuition programs. The list is definitely small right now, but the movement has got to start somewhere. So if you’re a current or future student looking to reduce your college expenses, or are a parent starting to save for your child’s college education, you may want to take a closer look at what these states have offer.

The map above shows the states that are currently on our list below. Those in dark green have true “free tuition” programs, while those that are lighter green have free tuition programs that are only eligible for certain fields of study (details below).

States with Free College Tuition Programs

1. New York

Name of the program: Excelsior Scholarship

What it covers: The Excelsior Scholarship essentially grants a waiver on tuition and fees to incoming freshmen who plan on attending one of New York state’s public universities. This includes any degree-granting school in the State University of New York system (SUNY) or the City University of New York system (CUNY). It will cover up to 4 years worth of tuition and fees. It is expected that a whopping 942,000 families with college-age children will be eligible for the program.

The Excelsior Scholarship is a so-called “last dollar system,” meaning that students must first accept any federal or state grants and scholarships that they are eligible for before the scholarship kicks in. This means that FAFSA application is required.

Who’s eligible? To be eligible for the scholarship, students must:

  • Be residents of New York state.
  • Be attending a SUNY or CUNY degree program (two or four-year).
  • Be taking at least 30 credits per calendar year (including summer and winter courses).
  • Have a total family income below the cut-off amount. For students starting school in Fall of 2017, that is $100,000; it will be $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 from 2019 onward.
  • Meet GPA requirements, which are set by individual colleges.

What’s the catch? There are a number of drawbacks to the program, including:

  • Recipients must be attending a school in the SUNY or CUNY systems.
  • Only incoming freshmen are currently eligible.
  • The scholarship does not pay for room and board, which at SUNY schools in the 2016-17 academic year averaged around $12,600.
  • Though 30 credits per academic year only translates to 15 credits each semester (less if summer and winter courses are taken), it can be a bit much for students who prefer an easier schedule.
  • Recipients are required to live and work in NY for the same number of years after graduate as the number of years that they received the scholarship. If students move out of state, the scholarship will become a loan that will need to be repaid.
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.

2. Oregon

Name of the program: Oregon Promise

What it covers: This program launched in fall of 2016 and covers most tuition costs at any community college in Oregon. It is a last-dollar program, meaning that the amount of your award will be calculated after you have received other state and federal grants. This translated into about $1,000 to $3,400 per year for students beginning college in the 2016-17 school year.

Who’s eligible? To be eligible for the Oregon Promise scholarship, you must:

  • Have recently graduated from an Oregon high school (with a GPA of 2.5 or higher) or have recently received your GED (with a score of 145 or higher on each test).
  • Have been an Oregon resident for at least 12 months before college attendance.

What’s the catch? Of course, there are a number of caveats, including:

  • Recipients must be attending a community college in Oregon.
  • The scholarship only covers the cost of 12 credits per term.
  • Once recipients have attempted a maximum of 90 credits, your eligibility will end.
  • Recipients must maintain at least half-time enrollment for fall, winter, and spring terms.
  • Recipients must complete the first year experience course (FYE) offered by whatever community college is attended.
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.

3. Tennessee

Name of the program: Tennessee Promise

What it covers: The Tennessee Promise scholarship will cover tuition and fees at any of Tennessee’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or at any eligible public or private college that has a two-year program. It is a last-dollar program, meaning that recipients must first apply to FAFSA and accept any federal or state grants. Savings for recipients are expected to be around $3,700 each year.

Who’s eligible? Eligibility for the Tennessee Promise scholarship requires:

  • That students are a Tennessee resident.
  • That students have graduated from an eligible Tennessee high school, home school program, or have obtained a GED by 19 years of age.

What’s the catch? Are there potential drawbacks? Of course! And here they are:

  • Recipients must be attending an eligible school in Tennessee.
  • Recipients must complete eight hours of community service per term that they are enrolled.
  • Recipients must maintain a GPA of 2.0.
  • Recipients must be enrolled full time in the fall term following their high school graduation.
  • Recipients must attend mandatory mentoring meetings to remain eligible.
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.

Tennessee (Again)

Name of the program: Tennessee Reconnect

What it covers: The Tennessee Reconnect program will launch in the Fall of 2018 and is aimed at adults over the age of 24. It covers the same tuition costs as the Tennessee Promise program (above). Funds can be used to finish a degree that you already started earlier or begin a degree for the first time. As a last-dollar program, recipients must complete a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants that are offered to them. Savings for recipients are expected to be around $3,700 each year.

Who’s eligible? To be eligible for the Tennessee Reconnect program, recipients must:

  • Be an adult in Tennessee over the age of 24.
  • Have lived in Tennessee for at least one year before applying for the funds.

What’s the catch? If this sounds like a program that might interest you, just be aware that:

  • Recipients must be attending an eligible school in Tennessee.
  • Recipients cannot currently hold an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree.
  • Recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA and be enrolled at least part time.
  • Recipients must participate in a mandatory advising program.
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.

4. Rhode Island

Name of the program: Rhode Island Promise

What it covers: The Rhode Island Promise scholarship was just signed into law in August of 2017. It covers two years of tuition and fees at the Rhode Island Community College. As a last-dollar program, students must first apply for FAFSA and accept any federal or state grants offered to them.

Who’s eligible? If you live in Rhode Island or are planning on moving, eligibility for the scholarship requires:

  • You are a 2017 (or later) high school graduate or GED recipient.
  • You are younger that 19 years old when you complete high school or earn your GED.
  • There are no income requirements or cut-offs.

What’s the catch? As the newest free tuition program, the kinks are still being worked out, but some of the caveats we know about so far are:

  • Recipients must be attending the Rhode Island Community College.
  • Recipients must maintain full-time enrollment (15 credits per term is recommended, since 30 credits must be earned each year).
  • Recipients must maintain a 2.5 GPA while enrolled.
  • Funds only apply to the two-year program at the Rhode Island Community College, not to any four-year degree program.
  • Like the New York program, recipients are required to continue living and working in the state for a period of time after they have finished school. Details of this requirement are not yet known.
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.
  • Right now, this is a pilot program for 4 years, after which it may not be extended.

States with Sorta Free College Tuition Programs

In addition tot he states listed above who offer free college tuition programs, the states below also offer free college tuition. But the programs below are much more limited.

Limited how? Most of these states limit the program to certain fields of study that are in high demand. If you don’t study and work in those fields, you don’t get the funds.

5. Arkansas

Name of the program: ArFuture grant

What it covers: The ArFuture grant pays tuition and fees for students who are enrolled in a two-year program at a community or technical college in a high-demand field of study (beginning the 2017-18 academic year). These include STEM programs or various fields that have “regional demand.” Recipients maintain eligibility until they have either earned an associate’s degree or received the grant for five semesters.

Who’s eligible? Eligibility for the grant are a bit stricter than in other cases, and include:

  • Recipients must be an Arkansas resident for the three years preceding application.
  • Recipients must have graduated from an Arkansas high school or earned their GED.
  • Recipients must be enrolled in a STEM program or in a field that has high “regional demand.”

What’s the catch? There are a number of potential drawbacks to the program, including:

  • Recipients must attend an eligible school in Arkansas.
  • Recipients must be in a STEM program or field with high “regional demand.”
  • Funding is available on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning it is not guaranteed.
  • Recipients must meet academic standards, which are determined by the college.
  • Recipients must attend monthly mentor meetings.
  • Recipients must complete at least eight hours of community service per semester that the grant is received.
  • Recipients must continue to live in Arkansas and work full-time for a minimum of three years, or else the grant will be converted to a loan which must be repaid.
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.

6. Kentucky

Name of the program: Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship

What it covers: Beginning in the 2017-18 academic year, students in Kentucky who pursue a two-year degree in a high demand workforce sector can have their tuition and fees waived. High-demand areas include health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation/logistics, business services or IT, and construction. It is estimated that the value of the scholarship is about $3,900 per year received. As a last-dollar program, individuals must first apply for the FAFSA and accept any federal or state grants offered.

Who’s eligible? Eligibility requirements for the Kentucky program include:

  • Recipients must be a US citizen or permanent resident, in addition to a Kentucky resident.
  • Recipients must have earned their high school diploma or GED.
  • Recipients must not yet have earned an associate’s degree or any higher degree.
  • Recipients must be enrolled in a field of study that has a lot of workforce demand including: health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation/logistics, business services or IT, and construction.

What’s the catch? If this sounds good to you, just know that:

  • The fields of study eligible for the reward are liable to change as workforce demands change over the years.
  • The scholarship is rewarded on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning that funds are not guaranteed.
  • Recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA in college courses.
  • The scholarship will cover up to 32 credit hours of enrollment, but only up to four academic terms (two academic years).
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.

7. Minnesota

Name of the program: MnSCU Two-Year Occupational Grant pilot program

What it covers: This is a pilot program that covers fees and tuition at a Minnesota two-year college for those enrolled in eligible career and technical programs. It will cover the cost of up to 72 semester credits. For a full list of the various programs covered, see the full list of occupational programs here.  As a last-dollar program, individuals must first apply for the FAFSA and accept any federal or state grants offered.

Who’s eligible? The following requirements must be met to be eligible for the grant:

  • Recipients must be Minnesota residents (as defined here).
  • Recipients must be enrolled in an eligible program (see list above) at an eligible Minnesota university.
  • Parents of recipients must have an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $90,000 or less.
  • Recipients must be Minnesota residents.
  • Recipients must enroll in college either immediately after graduating from high school, earning their GED, or after completing a 12- or 14-month Americorps program (that started right after graduating high school the previous year).

What’s the catch? As with all of the rest of the programs in this list, there are certain points which may make this program less desirable:

  • As a pilot program, this program could end after the first two years are over (currently, the program will end after the 2017-18 academic year).
  • Recipients must participate in a free mentoring service offered by the program.
  • Recipient must be enrolled in an eligible occupational program, which is liable to change from year to year depending on workforce needs.
  • If the recipient is enrolled in a program that requires more than 30 semester credits, they must earn at least 30 credits during their first year to meet conditionals for renewal for their second year. This translates into 15 credits during the fall or spring, if summer or winter courses are not taken.
  • Recipients must maintain a 2.5 GPA.
  • As a last-dollar program, you must submit a FAFSA application and accept any federal or state grants offered.

Getting Ready to Pack Up and Move?

So there you have it: The complete list of states in the US that have some sort of free tuition program. The four states with true free programs are New York, Rhode Island, Oregon, and Tennessee (who has two programs!). New York’s program extends to four-year degrees, while the rest are limited to two-year programs.

Beyond this, there are three states with more narrowly-construed free tuition programs—Arkansas, Kentucky, and Minnesota—which require recipients to be enrolled in certain programs. And of course, there are programs offered by individual cities and universities aimed at reducing the burden of tuition fees for students in certain fields of study or with low income.

The good news is, if you live in a state that is not currently on this list, you still have time to move to reap some of these rewards. Most of the states listed here only require that a recipient be a resident for one year prior to receiving the funds (though Arkansas requires you be a resident for three years). That means that parents with children who are not yet done with high school can, if it makes sense, move to a state that will offer their children free tuition. Of course, this is a serious decision to make, but it might just be what your child needs in order to go to college without the burden of student loans.

About Tim Stobierski

Tim Stobierski is the founding editor of Student Debt Warriors. A freelance writer and editor with a passion for teaching people about all things personal finance, his goal is to help parents and students tackle their student loan problems so that they can live happier, healthier lives. Tim’s writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Huffington Post, The Hartford Courant, Grow Magazine, and others. His first book of poetry, “Chronicles of a Bee Whisperer,” was published in 2012 by River Otter Press.

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