In light of the previous decades of rising college costs, free community college has emerged as a game-changer for many students. At Campus, we’ve made it our mission to maximize access to a wold-class education, starting with our 100% online program that helps students keep their out-of-pocket costs low as they earn their degrees. That’s why we’re taking a closer look at the recent rise of free community college programs in the country and how they’re helping shape the future of education.
As the cost of attending college continues to rise at an alarming rate, a growing percentage of high school seniors are reevaluating the choice to attend a traditional, four-year college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost of attending a four-year college – including tuition, fees, and room and board – increased a whopping 180% between 1980 and 2020.
Cost is one of the biggest factors students consider when choosing a college. A 2021 Fidelity study found that one in four parents of high school students believe the cost of one year of college will be $5,000 or less. And nearly 38% of students reported the same.
However, the average cost of college in the U.S., which includes books, living expenses, and other costs associated with attending college, is $35,551 per year, with public in-state averaging at $25,707 per year. The rising costs associated with college have left many families applying for financial aid, but there are ways to reduce or eliminate the cost of higher education.
Free Community College: A Benefit for Millions of Students
In light of rising costs, a growing number of would-be undergraduates are opting out of college. During the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, a survey of high school students found that the likelihood of attending a four-year college sank by nearly 20%. For spring 2022, postsecondary enrollment fell 4.1%, or by 685,000 students, from the previous year.
Community colleges, which accounted for more than half of those losses, have lost more than 827,000 students since the start of the pandemic. Despite pandemic-related losses, nearly 30% of undergraduate students are enrolled at public, two-year community colleges.
On average, community college costs about 50% less a year than the tuition at an in-state, four-year public university when tuition, fees, and related costs are factored in. Additionally, when it comes to the virtual space, the pandemic has helped make online education more widely accepted and seen as a quality alternative to traditional education.
Today, there are hundreds of online degree programs, and learners across the world are earning accredited online degrees thanks to the rise of online community college and four-year college programming available.
Though now you may be wondering: are community colleges free? Is community college free in general? Can they be?
Yes, there are actually many free community college programs across the United States, but not all community colleges are free. For the 2021-22 school year, public community colleges charged, on average, $5,155 per year for in-state students and $8,835 for out-of-state students.
In comparison, the average cost of tuition and fees to attend a four-year, public college was $10,388 for in-state students and $22,698 for out-of-state students. And the average cost of a private, four-year college was $38,185.
Should Community College Be Free?
There are arguments in favorite of making community college free, as well in opposition. Making community college free is a complex process that requires careful consideration of numerous factors.
On the one hand, making community college free removes financial barriers that prevent low-income students from attending college and positively impact social mobility. On the other hand, this may have implications for policy, taxes, and education quality. Regardless, free community college, especially online community college programs, could dramatically increase access to education in general.
In 2021, the Biden Administration put forth a proposal to provide free community college across the nation through the formation of federal-state partnerships. However, in early 2022, that proposal was stripped from Biden’s Build Back Better bill. In spite of this setback, the number of statewide free community college programs is growing. According to a BestColleges survey, 69% of Americans favor free community college for either all or most first-time college students!
The Pros and Cons of Free Community College Degree Programs
The benefits of free community college are both personal and far-reaching, but there are also some disadvantages to consider.
Advantages of Free Online Community College
Expanded Access to Higher Education
With free tuition, a higher education becomes more accessible to everyone. This is especially important for underserved communities that tend to have greater obstacles to earning a degree, which has become increasingly necessary for securing a high-paying job. Below are the key long-term advantages of free community college programs.
- Produces a More Educated Population: The more education one obtains, the more doors open to higher-paying employment opportunities, paving the way for career advancement. This benefits both the individual and their community as the local workforce is strengthened with a pool of skilled and educated professionals and more residents have greater financial security.
- Contributes to Economic Growth: Most students who graduate from college are burdened by substantial student loan debt. The average student debt in the U.S. is $37,693 per person. This debt burden not only limits their financial flexibility but also hampers their ability to save, spend, and contribute to the overall economy. When students graduate debt-free, they can fully engage in economic activities and are better equipped to participate.
Disadvantages of Free Online Community College
While free community college programs offer a wide range of benefits, it's important to acknowledge that there are some associated drawbacks with implementing them.
By delving into the varying potential disadvantages of community college, we can better navigate its complexities and make informed decisions when it comes to implementing and optimizing programs to be the most impactful.
- Potential Tax Implications: Almost 80% of community college revenues rely on state and local funds. The absence of tuition payments directly shifts the financial burden from individual students to the community at large. Due to this, there may be tax implications because increased funding requirements can possibly prompt tax hikes to sustain the programs.
- Limited Targeting of Financial Aid: Providing universal access to financial aid, as demonstrated in free community college programs, could be a risk if there are limited resources to distribute. Funds may be allocated to those who can already afford to pay for their education independently, possibly restricting the availability of aid to students who truly need assistance. Knowing this, some states have rules in place to avoid this outcome.
- Overloaded Labor Market: The implementation of free community college programs could lead to the saturation of the job market consisting of graduates holding undistinguished credentials. There may be a larger pool of graduates entering the workforce with similar qualifications, meaning there may be more pressure to acquire advanced degrees to gain a competitive edge for positions that might not have required or heavily considered in the past.
How to Go to Community College for Free
Free community college programs differ tremendously from state to state, so be sure to do your research and read the fine print for the state where you live. In many states, you have to graduate from an in-state high school and enroll full-time to qualify for free tuition. It’s also possible that you will have to commit to staying in the state for several years after graduation.
Every program is unique. You'll need to carefully research your state's or city's specific offer and understand what's needed from you in order to qualify and continue to qualify for the program's financial benefits.
How Do Free Community College Programs Work?
It’s important to remember that, in general, funds received for free community college programs and affordable online community college programs do not need to be repaid. However, if a state requires you to live and work in that state for a number of years after graduation and you don’t honor this requirement, you may have to repay whatever grant or scholarship money you were given.
While some states offer financial aid to everyone, other states have a need-based policy. And, quite often, eligibility is tied to academic performance. Additionally, at the federal level, students may also qualify for the Pell Grant, a need-based program that provides financial assistance to low-income undergraduate students to help cover the costs of education.
Most of the time, you will be required to complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which is a form completed by current and prospective college students to determine their eligibility for student financial aid.
Even if tuition is free, you may still have to pay for textbooks, supplies, transportation, and room and board. You may also need to pay campus fees such as technology fees, student activity fees, or lab fees. It’s possible that these additional costs could be waived or covered by the Pell Grant or other forms of scholarships and aid.
Which States Have Free Community College?
If you live in one of the states listed below, you may be eligible to attend community college for free. Each state’s program has specific parameters and eligibility requirements.
For example, many programs offer “last-dollar” grants or scholarships, which means they pay any remaining college fees after other aid is applied. Other programs offer “first-dollar” grants that provide students with college funds upfront, regardless of what other funding they may be eligible to receive.
Furthering your higher education is always a smart move. And with free community college programs available in the majority of states, now is the time to take advantage of this opportunity and fast-track your future.
Learn more about the free community college programs across the United States:
Arkansas offers the AR Futures Grant, which provides last-dollar scholarships for two years of tuition and mandatory fees at community and technical colleges. Awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, the grant requires recipients to take part in a mentor and community service program plus work full time in Arkansas for three years after graduating.
California Promise is a program that allows individual schools to decide how to use the funds provided. Schools can choose to waive one year of tuition and fees per application cycle for first-time, full-time students or to strengthen student support services.
Connecticut covers tuition for first-time, full-time students at community and technical colleges through its Pledge to Advance CT (PACT) program. PACT is open to all residents of Connecticut and covers up to three years of education – a great example of a truly free community college program for students who pursue a two-year degree.
Within Connecticut, the city of New Haven also has a program called New Haven Promise. This scholarship and support program is designed to promote college access and college success for the youth of Greater New Haven by covering up to 100% tuition at public colleges.
Delaware’s Student Excellence Equals Degrees (SEED) Scholarship is a last-dollar program that covers up to three years of tuition toward an associate degree or workforce training program at Delaware Technical and Community College or an Associate of Arts degree at the University of Delaware.
Hawaii offers the Hawai’i Promise Scholarship program, a last-dollar program that covers tuition at the University of Hawai’i Community College for students with financial need. The program covers all direct education costs up to eight semesters, including tuition, fees, books, supplies, and transportation.
Indiana’s Next Level Jobs Workforce Ready Grant covers up to two years of tuition and mandatory fees for one of five approved programs at Ivy Tech Community College, Vincennes University, Indiana Institute of Technology, and other participating institutions.
The state also has a 21st Century Scholars program that provides up to four years of undergraduate tuition to eligible students at participating colleges or universities in Indiana. All Scholars must earn a cumulative high school grade point average of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale.
The Future Ready Iowa Last-Dollar Scholarship covers any remaining gap between federal and state financial aid and the cost of tuition and qualified fees. Funding is available for eligible students for up to five full-time or eight part-time semesters. The scholarship covers postsecondary certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees.
The Kansas Promise Act Scholarship is a last-dollar program that pays remaining tuition, fees, and textbook costs for students attending the state’s community and technical colleges, Washburn Institute of Technology, and other private, non-profit colleges that offer eligible programs. Grant recipients must agree to live and work in Kansas for two years after graduating.
Kentucky’s Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship is a last-dollar program that’s available for up to 60 credit hours. There are no income or GPA restrictions. Qualifying programs include advanced manufacturing, business and IT, construction trades, healthcare and transportation, and logistics.
Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) covers tuition and fees at the state's public community and technical colleges, universities, proprietary and cosmetology schools, and other institutions that are part of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. To be eligible, students must enroll in college within one year of graduating high school.
In Maine, the Free College Scholarship provides pandemic-relief funds to cover tuition and mandatory fees for high school graduates from the classes of 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. The scholarship covers up to two years at any of the state’s community colleges.
The Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship is a last-dollar program that’s available to students interested in an apprenticeship program, certificate, licensure, certification, or Associate degree at a community college in their county or region. The award is limited to $5,000 per recipient, which is enough to cover tuition costs at participating schools.
Michigan Reconnect covers last-dollar tuition and mandatory fees for adult learners. Students who choose to attend a school where they are not considered to be “in district” must pay the difference between in-district and out-of-district tuition. Eligible adults are those aged 25 and up who have a high school diploma or equivalent, no college degree, and who have lived in Michigan for at least a year.
Missouri’s A+ Scholarship Program is a last-dollar program for students who graduated from a high school in the state’s A+ Schools Program. Eligible students must spend at least two years prior to high school graduation at an A+ designated high school, maintain a 95% attendance record and 2.5 GPA, and provide 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or mentoring.
Nevada Promise is a scholarship and mentoring program that provides last dollars for up to three years of tuition and mandatory fees at any of the state’s community colleges. Grant recipients must complete eight hours of community service and take part in the Nevada Promise Mandatory Training.
The New Jersey Community College Opportunity Grant provides last-dollar scholarships to low-income high school graduates. The grant covers up to four years of in-district tuition and fees. Only NJ residents who have not received a college degree and have a household income of $65,000 or less a year are eligible.
The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship is a first-dollar scholarship that will cover 100% of the bill for up to 35,000 New Mexicans. The scholarship program makes no stipulations on immigration status, making this an incredibly accessible free community college program offered by the state.
New York’s Excelsior Scholarship covers up to four years of last-dollar tuition expenses at CUNY and SUNY colleges, including community colleges and statutory colleges at Cornell University and Alfred University. The funds are maximized at $5,500 per award cycle.
Students must come from households with a combined adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less. After graduation, scholarship recipients must live and work in NY for the same number of years for which they received the award, or it will be converted into a loan.
North Carolina’s Longleaf Commitment Grant Program uses federal pandemic-relief funds to make community college free for low-income students through the spring 2023 semester. The program will fund up to $2,800 a year for two years.
Oklahoma’s Promise pays the full tuition for qualified students at public institutions or a portion of tuition at private institutions. The award covers as many as five years of education and up to a bachelor’s degree. Students must apply between the ages of 13 and 17.
The Oregon Promise Grant is a "middle dollar" program that helps cover tuition costs at any Oregon community college for recent high school students with a GPA of 2.0 or higher or GED test graduates who scored 145 on all tests. Awards range from $2,000 to over $4,000 for full-time students, minus a $50 co-pay per term. The award covers up to 90 college credits.
Rhode Island’s Promise is a last-dollar program that provides up to two tuition-free years at the Community College of Rhode Island or the last two years at one of the state’s four-year colleges. Recipients must agree to live and work or continue their studies in Rhode Island after graduation.
The South Carolina Workforce Scholarship Program covers tuition and fees for up to 15,000 students who attend any of the state's technical colleges and choose to earn a degree or credential in a high-demand field such as manufacturing, health care, computer science and information technology, and construction.
Recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA and fulfill one of three stipulations: complete 100 hours of community service at a non-profit or public-service organization, be employed while attending college, or take a financial literacy course at the technical college where enrolled.
Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program that covers two years of tuition at any of the state’s 13 community and 27 technical colleges. Recipients are paired with mentors to assist them navigate the college experience. Recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA and perform eight hours of community service per term while enrolled.
Virginia’s G3 is a middle-dollar program that makes the state’s community colleges free to students in the high-demand fields of IT, public safety, healthcare, skilled trades, construction and manufacturing, and early childhood education.
The Washington College Grant provides both recent high school graduates and adults from low- and middle-income backgrounds the opportunity to attend public colleges in the state for free or at a reduced price. The household income limit tops out at 55% of the state’s median income.
The state’s College Bound Scholarship is an early commitment of state financial aid to eligible students who enroll in middle school and meet the requirements. It covers the cost of tuition at public college rates, some fees, and a small book allowance at over 65 colleges, universities and technical schools in Washington state.
West Virginia Invests is a last-dollar scholarship to the state’s community and technical colleges as well as associate-degree programs at four-year colleges. For every term that receives funding, the recipient must complete two hours of community service.
Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship offers merit- and need-based funding for Wyoming community colleges. The four-tiered program is achievement-based: Honors, Performance, Opportunity, and Provisional. All Wyoming high school and home-school graduates are eligible for the Hathaway Scholarship as they maintain a minimum high school GPA of 2.5and score 19 or better on the ACT.
Vermont’s 802 Opportunity Grant covers last-dollar tuition expenses and the $100 administrative fee at the Community College of Vermont. Applicants must demonstrate financial need. Students with a family income of $50,000 or less have the opportunity to have their tuition paid.
Free community college has become a major solution for thousands of students who want a quality education for a practical cost. The Campus online associate degree in business program has tuition below the Pell Grant and covers some significant barriers associated with college, including providing students a new laptop and WiFi access as needed, and all eTextbooks and required course materials.
Programs intentionally designed to be in favor of the students' needs like the ones above are here to level the playing field and reduce financial burden for so many aspiring professionals.