The Promise of Free Community College and What States Deliver

Caitlyn Valadez, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives 

800px-college_graduate_studentsMamie Voight of the Institute for Higher Education Policy once noted that ”free is a message that works.” The phrase “free community college” is often used to describe and promote scholarship programs that cover tuition costs for community college students.  This policy approach to making college more affordable and educating the American workforce has gained traction in recent years, as evidenced by the Obama Administration’s rollout of its national College Promise Program. However, as any student or aspiring student knows very well, the total cost of attending community college goes well beyond the tuition sticker price. Books, housing, transportation, and the opportunity cost of forgone wages all add up to create the true cost of attending community college. 

Most free community college programs that state legislatures have recently implemented across the country are “last dollar” programs, meaning that they cover only the cost of tuition and are geared towards students matriculating directly from high school to community college. For students looking to pursue their education at a community college, understanding the details of exactly what politicians and administrators mean by “free community college” in their state is crucial for sound financial planning and, ultimately, for successful degree completion. 

What is a “Last Dollar” Program?

first lastMany people are familiar with tuition assistance programs such as Pell Grants or merit-based scholarships. These are considered “first dollar” programs because the amount they allocate to each student does not depend on other awards. Consequently, they can be used to cover some of the additional costs associated with attending school such as transportation, housing, and school materials. “Last dollar” programs, however, allocate funding only after taking into account all other federal and state financial aid and are only disbursed after all other funds have been applied to tuition. Therefore, the total amount of “last-dollar” funding a student receives to cover the direct costs of tuition will depend on the amount of other federal and state financial aid the student is eligible for. Importantly, these programs cannot cover costs of college attendance outside of tuition, such as transportation, books, and childcare. 

“Free Community College”: See State for Details

Some state college promise programs require that an individual be matriculating directly from high school to community college in order to be eligible for tuition coverage. Therefore, individuals currently in the workforce or individuals who previously completed coursework but did not complete their degree are ineligible for these programs. Students looking to enroll in their state’s program should be well versed in the details of their state’s eligibility requirements in order to ensure they are financially prepared to cover the costs of college and determine whether they should seek additional funding sources. Here are a few of the eligibility requirements that vary across states:

It is crucial that prospective students understand both the difference between first and last dollar programs and the eligibility requirements unique to each state before participating in their area’s free community college program. Prospective students and their families should be sure to read the fine print in the college application and financial planning process and policymakers should be as transparent as possible when describing what their state offers. To learn whether your state offers a community college tuition assistance programs, visit this website to learn more. 


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