According to U.S. News & World Report, the average public college tuition cost was $10,388 for the 2020-2021 school year.
While this figure is much less than a private university, it is still out of reach for many students and their families.
Fortunately, free public college tuition is available in 30 states. Some of these free colleges in USA even offer four-year degrees.
That means debt free college is possible, which we highly encourage here at Five Bags of Gold. No young adult should start off their life journey with a mound of debt!
What Does Free Public College Mean?
Public colleges themselves aren’t free, but they have special programs set up that can be utilized to reduce the costs associated with attending college.
Most of these programs fully cover a student’s tuition, while others also make allowances for books. A select few even cover room and board.
If the college has a two-year program, students could potentially graduate with an Associate’s Degree without any debt, especially if the student was able to commute from home.
Should the free public college tuition be associated with a four-year school, students would have the opportunity to graduate with a bachelor’s and no debt.
How Can Americans Get Free College?
As long as you live in one of the states that has programs for free colleges in USA, you can get your tuition covered.
You’d need to check the eligibility criteria for the program in your state and make sure that you qualify.
Some states have only a few limits to their programs, while others require applicants to meet certain income, location or merit criteria.
What States Have Free Public College?
CNBC reports on 30 states that offer free public college tuition. Let’s take a look at their chart below.
States With Limited Requirements:
- Rhode Island
- New Mexico
States With Multiple Eligibility Requirements:
- New York
- New Jersey
- West Virginia
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
According to the article, Maine is also in the works of approving a plan to provide a tuition-free education for two-year degrees, making it state #30.
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What Colleges Offer Free Tuition?
Since the programs to reduce the cost of college tuition are state programs, they apply to certain public colleges within the state.
Most of the programs apply only to two-year degrees, making them available at many local community colleges.
Others, include four-year degrees. Let’s take a look at two of these free public college tuition programs.
- Excelsior Scholarship (New York): If you live in the state of New York, you can apply for the Excelsior Scholarship. You must meet location and income eligibility requirements, but if you are accepted, you can utilize the scholarship for up to five years to complete a two or four-year degree.
- Opportunity Scholarship (New Mexico): The state of New Mexico has an Opportunity Scholarship to cover the cost of tuition and fees for two and four-year programs, as well as training certificates.
Here are few two-year tuition free colleges and universities.
- Community College Promise Scholarship (Maryland): Students must be enrolled full-time and meet certain income requirements. Funds of up to $5,000 are available toward tuition and mandatory fees.
- Rhode Island Promise (Rhode Island): Income is not a factor for the Rhode Island Promise program. All students who graduate or receive a GED qualify as long as they apply the fall following graduation.
- California College Promise Grant (California): One of the few first-dollar programs (see term definition below), the California College Promise Grant is available for residents attending one of the 43 approved colleges.
Tuition Free Colleges and Universities: Terms to Understand
When searching free colleges in USA, you need to understand the types of programs available and what they each entail. There are three basic program types:
- Debt-Free College Education: This program covers every college expense, including tuition, books, and room and board. It is the least commonly offered program.
- First-Dollar Programs: This program pays the entire amount of the student’s tuition. If the student is awarded financial aid or has private scholarships, those are applied to any other fees or debts, including books and room and board. This program is more common than the debt-free program, but less common than last-dollar programs.
- Last-Dollar Programs: This program applies all federal and state financial aid awards toward the student’s tuition first and then covers the remaining balance with its funds. That means students are left to pay all other fees, including books and room and board, out of their own pockets. This is the most commonly offered program type.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Free College Tuition?
Before you take advantage of free public college tuition, it’s important to examine both the pros and cons.
Free Public College Tuition Pros
- More students will opt to attend college if they know they can afford it.
- Graduating debt-free reduces stress and puts students in a better financial position.
- Makes it possible for students to focus solely on school without having to get a job before graduation.
Free Public College Tuition Cons
- Some students may not work as hard, as they don’t have money invested.
- Although tuition is covered, often room and board and books and supplies are not.
- Nothing is free. The program may mean cuts are necessary in other departments within the college.
How to Get a Free College Education
There are several steps you can take to get a free college education.
Step 1: Focus on getting excellent grades throughout high school or excelling in a sport or extra-curricular activity. These may qualify you for both public and private scholarships.
Step 2: Check for free public college tuition programs and determine how much money you would need after that program’s funds were applied.
Step 3: Apply, apply, apply for as many public and private scholarships as you can. Every dollar you are awarded brings down the total owed. Check with your local churches (my daughter received a $1,000 scholarship from a church), local organizations (she also got one from our local Lion’s Club), etc. Your local library should be able to help you locate area-specific scholarships, as will your Chamber of Commerce.
Step 4: Fill out the FAFSA. While the FAFSA may also offer you a student loan, you don’t have to accept it. You can still fill out the FAFSA and only accept the grants that are offered, as these don’t have to be paid back.
Step 5: Sign-Up for the school’s Work Study Program. The work/study program revolves around your class schedule and not only provides a way to bring down the costs of your education, but also offers a fun way to meet other students.
Step 6: Send out a letter to family and friends. Let family and friends know about your goals and how much it costs to see those goals come to fruition. Report on any financial help that you have already received and the balance that is due. Ask if they’d like to partner with you to help further your education. You may be surprised at the response.
Step 7: Put it all together. Combine all of the above to enjoy debt free college.
Note: Another option is to find an employer who is willing to pay for your education. Many of these employers require you to work for them for a set number of years in order to enjoy this benefit, but it may be worth it if it’s in the field that you’re interested in studying.
Do Community Colleges Offer Bachelor’s Degrees?
The majority of community colleges offer certification programs and Associate’s Degrees, which is why many of the free public college tuition programs only cover two years.
However, there are several states that currently have four-year community colleges that allow students to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree. They include:
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
In Conclusion: Free Public College Tuition
I highly encourage parents to get together with their teens and have a thorough discussion about college goals and how to achieve those goals with little to no debt.
Checking to see whether any of these programs are available is a great first step to evaluate all of your options. It’s also possible that your teen qualifies for federal grants, which don’t need to be paid back.
Don’t forget to look for private scholarships, which can quite lucrative. My daughter received both federal grants and private scholarships. She graduated debt-free with a bachelor’s degree.
It’s also worth considering attending a two-year community college (if your state doesn’t have a four-year community college) and then transferring to a four-year school to obtain a bachelor’s. This option brings down the overall tuition cost, requiring less financial assistance in the long run.
What are your thoughts on these free public college tuition programs? Let us know below!