An In-Depth Guide to

Free Community College: Everything You Need To Know

Free community college is quickly becoming one of the most widely discussed measures that could significantly alter the educational paths of millions of Americans. 

On the campaign trail and in office, President Biden has advocated for free community college education, which could give many Americans the opportunity to pursue their desired careers without having to worry about crippling student loan debt. 

But are there downsides to free community college and do certain states already offer community college free of charge? 

Here’s an in-depth guide to help you understand what free community college means, how it can benefit you, and what its current status is across the country.


What “Free” Community College Actually Means

When it comes to community college being free you should be aware of what exactly that means: it implies that you won’t have to pay the tuition fee for your course(s). 

Although the base tuition fee is waived, there are certain additional costs such as transportation, living expenses, textbooks, and supplies that also need to be covered.

In certain cases, these additional costs may also be waived, but this usually happens either in the case of a financial aid package such as the Pell Grant (a subsidy the U.S. federal government provides for students who need to pay for college) or other forms of scholarships and aid.

It is worth bearing in mind that financial aid policies differ from state to state. While some states offer financial aid to everyone, other states have a need-based policy (students with lower income have a higher chance of receiving the aid).

Most of the time, when applying for a free program, you will be required to submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which is a form completed by current and prospective college students in the United States to determine their eligibility for student financial aid. 

Similarly, aid such as The Last Dollar Grant allows students to apply for funding consideration for up to four years of undergraduate studies within six years after high school graduation.


Pros and Cons of Free Community College

Free community college sounds like a great idea to many Americans. After all, who wouldn’t want to receive a free education? 

But despite its initial appeal, there are quite a few factors to consider when it comes to the debate on free community college. Below, we highlight the main pros and cons.

Pros
Millions of Americans will have better access to education
  • The American Families Plan allows pursuing an educational path to those students who would have otherwise been unable to afford it. According to a report by NASFAA, low-income students cannot afford 95 percent of colleges
 Increased opportunities for higher-paying jobs
  • Anthony Carnavale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says, “Two years of community college brings a return. In general, we see an 8% percent wage increase per annum for every year of college you complete. So if you go to a two-year college, on average, we’re talking about a substantial wage increase over a lifetime.” Not only will more people be entering the labor force in general, but this would especially be beneficial to people of color as 51 percent of students at community college identify as POC.
Free community college relieves a huge burden for students
  • In other countries which offer tuition-free education, students don’t have to worry about growing student debt. Rather, most of their costs revolve around supplies, books, and living expenses. However, in America, the average student loan debt is currently $37,693, according to a 2021 report by Education Data Org. Without the weight of student loan debt, college students are not only able to pursue a variety of different educational fields but can contribute more towards the economy by being able to afford better living conditions, owning cars, eating healthy, etc.
Cons
Most students attending community college already qualify for some sort of federal and state grants and scholarships.
  • “Right now, the majority of low-income students already go to community college for free, because of the combination of state aid and federal grants, their net cost, on average, is negative, meaning they’re getting some money back to cover living expenses,” says Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. 
  • In fact, according to The College Board’s study, the average net cost of tuition and fees (after scholarships and grants are considered) at two-year community colleges is approximately -$220. This means that students that go through the grants/scholarships process get a small surplus. According to Akers, the idea of “free” community college is not as impactful as it may seem to be.
There are certain costs associated with education that are beyond tuition and these may not be covered under the proposed policy.
  • When it comes to community college being “free” you should be aware of what this means. Free community college implies  that you won’t have to pay the tuition fee for your course(s). Although the base tuition fee is waived off there are certain additional costs such as transportation, living expenses, textbooks, and supplies that still need to be financed. A study by ThinkImpact shows that the total estimated cost of living per year for students, including food, housing, clothing, technology, etc., is around $14,435.00
The focus of free education should not be on community college.
  • The idea of free education has also received criticism from Republican lawmakers, who believe that the plan is expensive and is aimed at two-year public colleges, which in many states offer at  low-cost or free. Critics also question whether it makes sense to give public two-year colleges so much federal funding when four-year schools not only have better graduation rates but many low-income students perform better at four-year colleges/universities. 
Millions of Americans will have better access to education
  • The American Families Plan allows pursuing an educational path to those students who would have otherwise been unable to afford it by providing $109 billion for two years of free community college.
  • Free community college would extend to Dreamers and would hep to ensure “that first-time students and workers wanting to reskill can enroll in a community college to earn a degree or credential for free.”
  • According to a report by NASFAA, low-income students cannot afford 95 percent of colleges so initiatives for free community colleges would have an outsized impact on low-income Americans.
Most students attending community college already qualify for some sort of federal and state grants and scholarships.
  • “Right now, the majority of low-income students already go to community college for free, because of the combination of state aid and federal grants, their net cost, on average, is negative, meaning they’re getting some money back to cover living expenses,” says Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. 
  • In fact, according to The College Board’s study, the average net cost of tuition and fees (after scholarships and grants are considered) at two-year community colleges is approximately -$220. This means that students that go through the grants/scholarships process get a small surplus. According to Akers, the idea of “free” community college is not as impactful as it may seem to be.
 Increased opportunities for higher-paying jobs
  • Anthony Carnavale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says, “Two years of community college brings a return. In general, we see an 8% percent wage increase per annum for every year of college you complete. So if you go to a two-year college, on average, we’re talking about a substantial wage increase over a lifetime.”
  • Not only will more people be entering the labor force in general, but this would especially be beneficial to people of color as 51 percent of students at community college identify as POC.
There are certain costs associated with education that are beyond tuition and these may not be covered
  • When it comes to community college being “free” you should be aware of what this means. Free community college implies that you won’t have to pay the tuition fee for your course(s). Although the base tuition fee is waived there are certain additional costs such as transportation, living expenses, textbooks, and supplies that still need to be financed. A study by ThinkImpact shows that the total estimated cost of living per year for students, including food, housing, clothing, technology, etc., is around $14,435.00
Free community college relieves a huge burden for students
  • In other countries which offer tuition-free education, students don’t have to worry about growing student debt. Rather, most of their costs revolve around supplies, books, and living expenses. However, in America, the average student loan debt is currently $37,693, according to a 2021 report by Education Data Org. Without the weight of student loan debt, college students are not only able to pursue a variety of different educational fields but can contribute more towards the economy by being able to afford better living conditions, owning cars, eating healthy, etc.
The focus of free education should not be on community college.
  • The idea of free education has also received criticism from Republican lawmakers, who believe that the plan is expensive and is aimed at two-year public colleges, which in many states offer at  low-cost or free.
  • Critics also question whether it makes sense to give public two-year colleges so much federal funding when four-year schools not only have better graduation rates but many low-income students perform better at four-year colleges/universities. 

Timeline of key developments related to free community college

May 2014 

Tennessee Promise

The Tennessee Promise was passed by legislation, making Tennessee the first state in the US to offer free tuition to students applying to community college.

January 2015

College Promise program

The Barack Obama administration proposed America's College Promise program, which was designed to offer two years of free community college education to anyone who applied to it. 

April 2017

College for All Act

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the first version of the College for All Act, which aimed to make community colleges tuition-free for families that earn $125,000 per year or less. 
New York introduced the Excelsior Scholarship, becoming the first US state to make four-year public colleges tuition-free for students studying at State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY).

October 2019

College Affordability Act

During the 116th Congress, the College Affordability Act was introduced, which outlined a federal-state partnership model where the federal government contributes 75 percent of the average resident tuition for public community colleges and states contribute 25 percent.

October 2020

Education Beyond High School Plan

The Education Beyond High School Plan was introduced as part of Biden’s presidential campaign, which aims to make education accessible to more Americans. The President plans on making community college tuition-free and four-year public universities free for families with incomes below $125,000. 
April 2021
American Families Plan
The Biden-Harris campaign introduced the American Families Plan. They have proposed to allocate $200 billion for free universal pre-school, $85 billion for Pell Grants, and $109 billion for two years of tuition-free community college. 
September 2021
$3.5 trillion budget blueprint
Congress passed a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint which would include free community college and lawmakers are already working on drafting detailed legislation.

Key Players and Their Stance

It is important to consider both sides of the debate so we have summarized the main arguments of some of the key players in this debate. These voices represent positions both for and against free community college.

In Favor

Headshot of Joe Biden
Joe Biden’s (D) Stance
46th U.S. President

On the campaign trail and in office, President Biden has advocated for free community college education.  According to the White House, under Biden’s plan, about 5.5 million students would pay no tuition or fees. 

“We can’t afford to exclude so many from continuing their education just because they come from certain areas or income brackets.” 

Sara Goldrick-Rab is the founder of the Hope Center for College Community and Justice in Philadelphia and a Professor of Sociology and Medicine at Temple University. She believes that this proposal is vital and long overdue.

“The evidence is very clear — making community colleges free and increasing financial aid will increase college attainment, especially for people now being left behind in this economy.”
Headshot of David Baime
David Baime’s Stance
Senior Vice President, Government Relations. AACC

David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) believes that Biden’s plan for “free education” is a “substantial investment” and could prove to be beneficial in the long run.

“A designated federal role in helping our colleges meet these students' needs is a wise investment that we think complements the federal investment in student financial aid.”

Against

Head Shot of Carrie Billy
Carrie Billy’s Stance
President, AIHEC

Carrie Billy, the president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation believes that “free education” results in a financial burden on the colleges that provide it.

She explains that although as seen in North Dakota, offering free tuition increases enrollment numbers, it may simultaneously be affecting the quality of education being provided.

“We’re afraid that with free tuition, our colleges that already have inadequate operating support, can’t do bonding and things like that, are then going to be asked to bear a disproportionate share of the tuition costs.”
Headshot of Lindsey Burke
Lindsey Burke’s Stance
Director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation,

Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, criticizes Biden’s plan saying that it comes with a hefty $10 billion price tag.

Burke states that the upper and upper-middle classes are likely to see an increase in taxes. She believes that because the plan will ultimately be funded by taxpayers, it will place a massive financial burden on them. Lindsey is known for her views against free community college.

“Proposals to make college ‘free’ or to forgive vast amounts of student loan debt reward one entity more than any other: the universities.”
Headshot of Rickard Vedder
 Richard Vedder’s Stance
Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University.

American economist, historian, author, columnist, and economics professor at Ohio University, Richard Vedder, questions the validity of free community college on multiple grounds.  

"[T]here are three problems [with free tuition at community colleges]: the poor academic track record of community college attendees, the potentially very negative economic growth implications from financing so-called free college, and even some fairness issues."

As for what the American public thinks, a recent study shows that among all US adults, 63% favor making tuition at public colleges free. On the other hand, slightly more than a third oppose tuition-free college (36%).

Stats of american adu


List of States Offering Free Community College

As of the date of publishing this article, 20 states offer free or subsidized state sponsored-education. Your eligibility and the amount of support varies from state to state, so for your benefit, we have listed all of them below.

Map of American States offering Free Community College


1. Arkansas (Arkansas Future Grant)

The aim of the Arkansas Future Grant (ArFuture) is to increase the education and skills of Arkansas’s workforce affordably. The grant applies to students enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) or regional high-demand areas of study. The grant covers a student’s tuition and fees for qualifying certificate and Associate degree programs at Arkansas public institutions for those eligible. The grant is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Eligibility Criteria

Students that are graduates of an Arkansas public school or have received a recognized high school equivalency diploma, and have lived in the state for at least three consecutive years are eligible to apply for the program.

Students must also complete eight hours of community service every semester and must work full-time for three consecutive years in the state following graduation

2. California (California Promise & The California College Promise Grant)

The California College Promise Grant and the California Promise are two separate programs that cover free community colleges in California offered to students. The California Promise program aims to help make college affordable to all students, whether that’s through waiving tuition and fees, establishing student support services, or providing financial aid to students for child care, transportation, books, or other expenses. The California College Promise Grant also permits a student’s enrollment fees to be waived.

Eligibility Criteria

State resident full-time students planning to attend or attending a two-year or four-year degree are eligible. They are required to complete 30-semester units within each academic year.

3. Connecticut (New Haven Promise)

The  Connecticut New Haven Promise scholarship grants free tuition to New Haven residents, who have graduated from a New Haven public school, attending public two or four-year colleges and universities in Connecticut.

Eligibility Criteria

The scholarship is specifically for New Haven residents who attended local public schools or an approved New Haven charter school. Students are required to have a clean disciplinary record and around 40 hours of community service during high school to be eligible for this grant. 

Moreover, applicants that have qualified for the grant must have a final high school GPA of 3.0 and a decent attendance record, with no more than 72 absent days.

4. Delaware (Student Excellence Equals Degree)

The SEED (Student Excellence Equals Degree) program grants free tuition to full-time students enrolled in the Associate of Arts degree program at the University of Delaware and also to students enrolled in any program at Delaware Technical Community College.

Eligibility Criteria

Delaware students with an average 2.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale), 1350 on the new Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), or an American College Testing (ACT) score of at least 19 are eligible for this program. Students applying to the program must have a clean track record with no felonies. 

5. Hawaii (Hawai’i Promise Scholarship)

The Hawai’i Promise Scholarship provides free in-state tuition for qualified University of Hawai'i community college students. It covers tuition, fees, books, supplies, and transportation for eligible students. The Hawaii Promise is a “last dollar” program which means that it will cover financial needs not met by other forms of financial aid such as federal grants and benefits from scholarships from UH, employers, and other private sources. The program is funded by the State of Hawaii ($2.5 million annually) and has helped over 1500 students in 2017-18.

Eligibility Criteria

Residents of Hawaii who have submitted their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application can apply.

6. Indiana (21st Century Scholars Program)

Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program provides up to four years of free tuition to state residents with a decent academic track record throughout high school, good behavior, and no participation in drug use and other illegal acts. 

Eligibility Criteria

To be eligible for the 21st Century Scholars Program, students must enroll for the program in 7th/8th  grade, earn an overall high school GPA of 2.5 (on a 4.0 scale), complete the Scholar Success Program, earn Indiana’s Core 40 Diploma, and complete at least 30 credit hours each year in college. A student’s income threshold level will also be evaluated for eligibility. 

7. Kentucky (Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program)

The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program provides free community college tuition to students in Kentucky who pursue degrees in an in-demand workforce sector, such as healthcare, advanced manufacturing, logistics, business services/IT, and construction.

Eligibility Criteria

To be eligible for this program, applicants must be a US citizen and a resident of Kentucky. Students applying for this program should be high school graduates or be enrolled in or have completed a General Educational Development (GED) Program but have not attained an associate degree. A student must apply or be accepted at an eligible institution approved by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.

8. Louisiana (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students)

TOPS is a scholarship program that offers free tuition for Louisiana residents. Students applying must attend either one of the Louisiana Public Colleges and Universities, schools that are a part of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, Louisiana approved Proprietary and Cosmetology Schools, or institutions that are a part of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. 

Eligibility Criteria

Applicants must be enrolled as full-time students and have a minimum GPA of 2.50 (on a 4.0 scale) in TOPS core curriculum courses. A minimum ACT score of the prior year’s state average must also be achieved. Moreover, students must earn 24 completed hours during their academic year to remain eligible.

9. Maryland (Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship)

This scholarship is a “last dollar” award, available to students who plan to enroll in credit-bearing coursework leading to a vocational certificate, certificate, or an associate degree; or in a sequence of credit or non-credit courses that lead to licensure or certification; or in a registered apprenticeship program at a Maryland community college.

Eligibility Criteria

Students that have graduated from a Maryland high school or are GED recipients who are planning to enroll, or are currently enrolled, at a Maryland community college are eligible to apply for this scholarship. Applicants are required to submit a completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online or Maryland State Financial Aid Application (MSFAA). Students must meet the income requirements as reported on their FAFSA or MSFAA.

10. Massachusetts (Boston’s Tuition-Free Community College Plan)

This program offers to cover up to three years of college tuition for qualified low-income students pursuing associate degrees in six participating schools. It is funded by the City of Boston. The TFCC plan covers the outstanding tuition or fees after a student has applied for the Pell Grant and students can expect $250 each semester for a maximum of three years.

Eligibility Criteria

Boston residents graduating with at least a 2.0 GPA and who are set to receive their high school diploma (or an equivalent) within 18 months of starting the TFCC plan are eligible for this program.

Students should also be eligible for the Pell Grant and must come from low to moderate-income households.

11. Missouri (A+ Scholarship)

This scholarship offers grants to eligible students who wish to attend a community college or vocational/technical school, or certain private two-year vocational/technical schools.

Eligibility Criteria

Applicants must have attended an A+ high school for at least two years prior to graduation, with a GPA of 2.5 or higher (on a 4.0 scale). Other requirements also include a minimum of 95% attendance and 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or mentoring prior to graduation.

12. Montana (Montana Promise Grant Program)

For students pursuing an associate's degree or professional credential at one of Montana's two-year tribal and community colleges, the Montana grant program is just the fit for you.

Eligibility Criteria

The requirements include students having a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (on a 4.0 scale) and must be Montana residents for at least 12 months. Students must not have an associate's degree, the equivalent of a postsecondary institution, or have completed more than 60 credit hours.

13. New York (Excelsior Scholarship) 

For students attending a two-year or four-year undergraduate degree-granting school in the State University of New York (SUNY) or the City University of New York (CUNY), The Excelsior Scholarship covers up to $5,500 from your tuition.

Eligibility Criteria

The requirements to attend free community colleges in New York include the student has graduated from a high school, earned a high school equivalency diploma, or passed a federally approved Ability-to-Benefit test.

The student must be a US citizen and a resident of New York for the last one year prior to the beginning of the term and have an adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less. 

The student must reside in the state for the length of the time the award was received, enroll in at least 12 credits per term, and complete at least 30 credits each year.

Related: Best Community Colleges in New York

14. Nevada (Nevada Promise Scholarship)

The Nevada Promise Scholarship is a “last dollar” program that provides applicants with the opportunity to receive up to three years of college tuition for students enrolled in any of the four community colleges in the state. 

Eligibility Criteria

The criteria for this scholarship are extremely flexible and have no specific academic requirements. However, applicants must be residents of Nevada and are required to complete 20 hours of community service.

15. Oklahoma (Oklahoma’s Promise)

Originating in 1992, the Oklahoma Promise program allows students who are enrolled in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade in an Oklahoma high school, to earn free tuition when they attend a state public two-year college or four-year university.

Eligibility Criteria

The requirements include the students must have completed a prescribed list of high school courses and have a family income of less than $55,000 per annum. However, during the course, a student may lose their scholarship permanently if they get suspended for more than one semester due to conduct reasons.

16. Oregon (Oregon Promise)

The Oregon Promise scholarship covers tuition costs of up to $4,000 per year for high school graduates enrolled in both two and four-year community colleges in the state.

Eligibility Criteria

The requirements include the students must have completed a prescribed list of high school courses and have a family income of less than $55,000 per annum. However, during the course, a student may lose their scholarship permanently if they get suspended for more than one semester due to conduct reasons.

17. Rhode Island (Rhode Island Promise)

The Rhode Island promise allows students to earn a tuition-free associate’s degree at The Community College of Rhode Island.

Eligibility Criteria

Applicants must have had a minimum 2.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) in high school, and cannot be older than 19. Students can apply for the grant regardless of their income status.

18. Tennessee (Tennessee Promise)

The Tennessee Promise is a “last dollar” scholarship, which means that the scholarship will cover the cost of tuition and mandatory fees not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship, or the Tennessee Student Assistance Award. It grants tuition-free education at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institutions offering an associate degree program.

Eligibility Criteria

Applicants must be residents of Tennessee, should maintain a GPA of 2.0 (on a 4.0 scale) or higher, and must complete at least eight hours of community service per term.

19. Virginia (Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back (G3))

For low and middle-income students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields, such as health care, information technology, and computer science this Virginian initiative makes community colleges tuition-free. Students who qualify for a Pell Grant can receive student-support incentive grants amounting to $900 per semester and $450 per summer term. 

Eligibility Criteria

Moreover, initial eligibility for the program will be determined through the submission of federal and state student financial aid applications, including FAFSA.

20. Washington (College Bound Scholarship Washington and The Seattle Promise)

Washington has not only one but two free community college initiatives. Both being last-dollar programs, The College Bound Scholarship covers tuition, some fees, and a small book allowance. Students in 7th or 8th grade from low-income families can apply. Whereas the Seattle Promise allows graduates of local public schools to apply for a tuition scholarship that covers any remaining tuition balance for up to two years at any public Seattle college. If low-income students require further support, such as books, meals, or room and board, they can apply for the Seattle Promise Equity Scholarship.

Eligibility Criteria

For the College Bound Scholarship, students must meet the FAFSA income eligibility criteria. 

And for the Seattle Promise scholarship, students must meet with their advisor each quarter to remain qualified, have a good academic standing, and have an exceptional attendance record.

Conclusion 

There has been a lot of discussion on whether community colleges should be tuition-free or not. Americans who are passionately for and against this are debating as key decisions are soon to be taken. For sure, free education will help the average American to open the doors to many opportunities. Benefits will also apply for international students.

However, whether the current bill is designed to offer free community college in the best way possible is a matter of debate. It is important for you to know the pros and cons so that you can form your own opinion and we have tried to offer a non-partisan perspective to the entire discussion.