Four States Where You Can Go to College for Free

Four States Where You Can Go to College for Free (Illustration by Desmond Meagley)

Student loans suck. Americans owe a staggering $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve. But in the last couple of years, individual states have been stepping in to help fill the void with “College Promise” programs and other types of community and state college scholarships.

That means that if you’re a resident of California or a handful of other states, you might be able to go to college for free, and avoid taking on student debt yourself. Yay, free money!

Here are a few of the states where you can attend college for free:


Thanks to a bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown last year and budget approval, the state of California is now offering a free year of college at all of its 114 community colleges to California residents who are recent high school graduates.

California’s “College Promise Grants” are separate from Cal Grants and vary regionally throughout the state. (More information about them is available here.) For example, as of August 27th, Contra Costa Community Colleges are offering free tuition to incoming “first-time, full-time” students through its FT3 initiative.

To be eligible for the tuition waiver, applicants must be taking at least 12 units, maintain a 2.0 GPA, complete an application for the program as an application for federal student aid (either through the FAFSA or the California Dream Act), create an educational plan, and be in their first year of college ever. The program encompasses all three of the community colleges in Contra Costa’s district: Contra Costa College, Los Medanos College and Diablo Valley College.

Another California program, called Free City, is available for San Francisco residents. The program is available for both full and part-time students through City College of San Francisco, though it’s not applicable for summer classes.


In May, Maryland passed a bill that will fully cover community college tuition for all full-time students from families who make under $125,000/year. The only requirement is that students must maintain a 2.7 GPA and attend college within two years of leaving high school. The law will go into effect in 2019.

This makes Maryland the most recent participant of the 16 states that run College Promise programs for their eligible residents, including Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Missouri and Hawaii.

New York

Through the Excelsior scholarship, New York now offers free tuition to residents at any two or four-year public college or university in the state. The scholarship grants up to $5,500 to full-time students with household incomes ranging up to $100,000 (that limit rises to $125,000 in 2019.) Excelsior currently assists just over 20,000 students, although research indicates that requiring recipients to complete 30 credits a year in order to be eligible currently poses a major barrier to the growth of the program.


Tennessee now offers two free tuition programs to its residents designed to address the needs of different demographics of students: Tennessee Promise is for recent high school graduates and Tennessee Reconnect is for independent adults who are returning to school. Both programs are “last dollar” tuition programs, meaning they kick in to pay fees that are not covered by other federal and state grants.

The Tennessee Promise Program provides two free years of tuition, in addition to mentoring services, to all graduating high school seniors in Tennessee. In order to maintain the scholarship, students must attend regular meetings with a mentor, maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service per school term. Tennessee Promise has been available since 2015.

Tennessee Reconnect, which came into effect this year, is aimed at an older demographic, targeting adults who previously left school and are looking to start or finish their first college degree. To be eligible, applicants must complete the FAFSA, be independent students, and enroll at least part-time (or six instruction hours per week) in college.

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