Update on the Free Community College movement in the U.S.

September 5, 2017
  • AACRAO Connect
  • AACRAO Consulting
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Student wearing their graduation cap and gown holding their arms open to the sky as they look at a cloud that says "free" on it.

By Michele Sandlin, Managing Consultant, AACRAO

Since Tennessee first began “Tennessee Promise” in 2015, a two-year program that provides free tuition at a Tennessee community or technical college, five other states along with two California cities have passed and implemented similar free tuition programs to encourage and facilitate college attendance and success.  In addition, in April of this year, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders presented federal legislation that would: • make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families make less than $125,000 annually, • cut student loan interest rates in half, and • triple the funding for the Federal Work-Study Program. But with the executive and legislative branches of government under Republican control, this bill has no realistic chance of passing anytime soon.  

Below is a summary of the details of these states’ and cities’ current free community college programs:


Program:  Tennessee Promise Scholarship, administered by the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC).  Scholarship and mentoring program focused on increasing attendance and completion for Tennessee residents.  

Eligibility requirements:

Complete 8 hours of community service per term enrolled

Maintain a 2.0 grade point average per term and be in good academic standing

Mandatory meetings with assigned mentor

Institutions:  Available at all 13 Tennessee community colleges, 27 applied technical colleges, and eligible four-year public and private colleges and universities that offer associate degree programs.  

Funding:  Last dollar program, meaning the scholarship covers cost of tuition and mandatory fees that are not already covered by the Pell Grant, the Hope Scholarship, or the Tennessee Student Assistance Award.

Website:  http://tennesseepromise.gov/about.shtml


Program:  Oregon Promise is a state grant program that helps to cover most tuition costs at an Oregon community college.  The program is limited to recent high school graduates and general educational development (GED) recipients.  It assists with most tuition costs at any Oregon community college for recent high school graduates and general educational development (GED) recipients.  The Oregon Promise grant program made changes for 2017-18, two years after the program started, and will eliminate grants for wealthier students.  Due to inadequate funding of the program and increased costs due to wealthier students who do not receiving Pell Grants, the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be considered in awarding the Oregon Promise grant.   The new changes will not affect students who were 2016-17 awardees.  All students were scheduled to be notified in July 2017 of the changes to the program.

Eligibility requirements:  For the Oregon Promise grant, the following is required:

1) Oregon Promise Grant Application by the appropriate deadline

2)  Recent Oregon high school graduate or GED recipient

3)  2.5 cumulative high school GPA or higher; or a GED score of 145 or higher on each test

4)  Attend at least half-time at an Oregon community college within 6 months of high school graduation or GED completion

5)  Oregon resident for at least 12 months prior to attendance

6) File a FAFSA or ORSAA application and list at least one Oregon community college

7) Must not have more than 90 college credits completed or attempted

Institutions:  All 17 Oregon community colleges

Funding:  Last dollar program.

Website:  https://oregonstudentaid.gov/oregon-promise.aspx


Program:  Excelsior Scholarship program was announced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in April of this year.  The program will provide free tuition for students with families that are at less than $125,000 in annual income and will be phased in over three years with the first year 2017-18 awarding to students with annual incomes up to $100,000.  The governor announced that the program will provide a maintenance provision to protect the budgets of SUNY and CUNY.  

Eligibility requirements:  

Be a resident of New York State

2) Attend a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year degree program

Complete 30 semester credits per year and make progress towards graduation

Maintain good academic standing

Graduate on time with an Associate’s Degree in two years or a Bachelor’s Degree in four years

Institutions:  The Excelsior Scholarship program will make tuition free at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY) system institutions; both community college and four-year colleges and universities.  CUNY was founded on free tuition which ended in 1976.  

Funding:  The Excelsior Scholarship is intended to supplement all current aid programs, including but not limited to TAP, PELL, and SUNY/CUNY Tuition Credit programs and provides assistance to students to cover any tuition gaps.

Website:  https://www.ny.gov/programs/tuition-free-degree-program-excelsior-scholarship


Program: Rhode Island Promise Scholarship proposed by Governor Gina M. Raimondo will cover the cost of tuition and fees at a Rhode Island community college regardless of family income.  The scholarship program will begin this fall 2017.  The scholarship does not cover housing costs.

Eligibility requirements:

Resident of the state of Rhode Island

Graduated from high school the previous spring (public, private or homeschooled) or GED recipients, who were younger than 19 years old when high school or the GED were completed).

Enroll full-time at a Rhode Island community college

Maintain a 2.5 or higher-grade point average

Complete 60 semester credits of coursework by end of 2nd year

Required to live, work, or continue education in Rhode Island after graduation

Requires completion of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Institutions:  Community College of Rhode Island associate degree programs or University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College bachelor’s degree programs.

Funding:  Last dollar program.  

Website:  https://www.riopc.edu/page/ri_promise/


Program:  Introduced by Governor Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas Future Grant program or ArFuture is a different take on providing free community college to Arkansas residents.  The program will start fall 2017 and is focused on the state’s workforce needs.  The scholarship is available to traditional and nontraditional students who enroll in a high demand field within the state of Arkansas with the goal of student completion and success.

Eligibility requirements: High school graduate or GED with established Arkansas residency.  Does not apply to high school students taking concurrent college coursework.

Must apply for Federal Pell Grant program

Meet monthly with a program mentor

Complete 8 hours of community service per semester

Must work in Arkansas for at least three years after graduation

Institutions:  All Arkansas community and technical colleges.

Funding:  Last dollar program.  If the student does not complete the eligibility requirements the grant will convert to a loan that the student will be required to pay back to the state of Arkansas.  ArFuture grant is stackable with the Arkansas Lottery and other state scholarships.

Website:  http://governor.arkansas.gov/press-releases/detail/gov.-hutchinson-introduces-new-arfuture-grant


Program:  Indiana’s Workforce Ready Grant is a partnership between Governor Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, which provides free community college to students seeking a certificate in a "high-value" field.  High-value" fields are those that have "high job placement, high completion rate, high wage and high demand." The grant’s goal is to encourage more adults to return and gain new stills and complete degrees and credentials.  

Eligibility requirements:

Enrolled in an Indiana certificate program in a high value approved field

Institutions:  Indiana community colleges offering high value certificate programs

Funding:  Last dollar program.  

Website Information:  http://www.wbiw.com/state/archive/2017/08/indiana-to-provide-free-community-college-certificate-programs-for-in-demand-fields.php


Program:  Long Beach College Promise is a partnership which began in 2008 and was expanded in 2015 between the City of Long Beach, California State University at Long Beach (CSULB), Long Beach City College (LBCC), and the Long Beach Unified School District.  The goal of this partnership program was to create a culture of college expectation, increase college readiness, improve graduation rates among Long Beach students and raise the education attainment rates of the entire Southern California region.  

Eligibility requirements: Elementary school students are provided college tours in 4th and 5th grades

Middle school students, and their parents or guardians, learn how to be college ready and commit to doing their part by signing a College Promise Pledge

High school students are provided access to AP courses and reduced AP test fees.

Long Beach City College provides Promise students a tuition-free year  

Cal State Long Beach guarantees admission for all qualified Promise students even with the high demand access to CSULB

Institutions:  Long Beach City College and California State University Long Beach

Funding:  Last dollar program.  

Website:  http://www.longbeachcollegepromise.org/


Program:  Free City is a free community college tuition partnership between City College of San Francisco (CCSF), the City and County of San Francisco, and funded by the voters of San Francisco.  The pilot program will launch in fall of 2017 and will be fund a student for two-years at CCSF.  

Eligibility requirements: Application is required through the normal registration process

California resident for one year and one day and a San Francisco resident as of the first day of term

Students may qualify for a non-resident exemption 

Students may qualify if they are homeless or are a foster youth and meet the California residency requirement.

Institution:  City College of San Francisco

Funding:  Last dollar program.  The program will provide grants to low-income students who apply for financial aid to cover extra costs. Full-time low-income students, who already receive a state-funded fee waiver, will receive a $500 annual grant, part-time students will receive $200.

Website:  https://www.ccsf.edu/freecity



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