Tuition costs are higher than ever, and students are feeling the impact of inflated tuition and fees as they finance their degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average tuition and fees for the 2020-21 academic year were 20 percent higher than they were in 2010-11, after accounting for inflation.

To relieve some of the financial strain, some schools and states now offer some form of tuition-free college. Tuition-free college is not the same as free college; there are still expenses included with attending school, like room, board and associated fees. However, these programs can make a degree much more affordable.

What is tuition-free college?

Tuition-free college programs cover the cost of the courses for students, substantially reducing the total costs of attendance for those who qualify. These programs are generally funded on a state- or county-wide basis. Most of them are “last-dollar” programs, meaning that they cover the remaining tuition costs after scholarships and grants have been applied.

There are also “promise programs” that fund two years of community college at qualifying schools; however, as with last-dollar programs, students are still responsible for shouldering the additional costs associated with earning a degree.

Depending on the program, there may be qualifications that students must meet to take advantage of the tuition-free programs. For example, most states require students to graduate from an in-state high school and enroll full time to be eligible for the program. Schools may also have eligibility stipulations of their own and base the programs on factors like academic performance or financial need.

States with free college programs

According to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, there are 32 U.S. states that offer free college programs.

Free 4-year college programs

  • The Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI) matches community scholarships for students experiencing financial need, particularly students from underserved student populations. To qualify, students must have a household income of up to 250 percent of the maximum permissible income for Pell Grants; they also must participate in a student success program and be attending a public vocational school, community college, research institution or four-year college.
  • Indiana’s 21st Century Scholarship waives tuition for income-eligible state residents planning to attend an in-state four-year institution. The scholarship requires students to apply in seventh or eighth grade, fulfill a twelve-requirement pledge and maintain a high school GPA of at least 2.5.
  • The All Iowa Opportunity Scholarship is offered to Iowa residents attending an eligible in-state institution within two years of receiving a high school diploma. The scholarship amount adjusts per year, but first-time recipients in the 2022-23 academic year are eligible to receive the scholarship for a total of eight full-time semesters.The scholarship prioritizes students who have aged out of Iowa’s foster care system, children of deceased public safety workers, students who graduated from alternative high schools and students who participated in specific statewide programs. Students must also complete the FAFSA, have an eligible expected family contribution and be enrolled for at least three semester hours.
  • The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) provides merit-based scholarships that pay for tuition and certain fees at any Louisiana public college or university. Students must be a Louisiana resident and meet the merit-based eligibility requirements, which includes a minimum high school GPA. Students must also be enrolled full time.
  • The MASSGrant Plus program gives students with financial need the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree with waived tuition costs. Applicants must be enrolled as full-time students at a state university or specialized college and be receiving Pell Grant funds.
  • From spring 2022 through 2024 — or whenever the funds run out — Minnesotans who are preparing to work in a high-need career and who meet the income requirements can apply for the Minnesota Future Together Grant. Students must be pursuing a degree leading to a career in health care, STEM, business, industry and technology, education or public service and be attending a program at a public higher education institution or Tribal College.
  • The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship covers up to the total cost of tuition at any New Mexico public college or university. In order to qualify, students must be an established resident of the state, plan to enroll in at least six credit hours per semester and maintain a 2.5 GPA.
  • New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program gives eligible students attending a SUNY or CUNY school the money to cover tuition expenses after federal and state aid has been applied. Students must have an adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less, complete an average of 30 credits per year and agree to live in New York for the number of years an award was given.
  • Students who meet academic and behavioral conduct requirements while in high school are eligible for Oklahoma’s Promise award, which covers up to the cost of tuition at a public four-year university once other aid has been applied. Students must also have a household adjusted gross income of less than $60,000 and make satisfactory academic progress once enrolled.
  • Washington’s College Bound Scholarship is an automatic, pledge-based scholarship program that covers the average tuition cost at more 65 in-state institutions. Seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade in-state students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are automatically enrolled. However, to remain eligible, students must be deemed as income-eligible as per their FAFSA information, meet the residency requirements and graduate high school with a 2.0 minimum GPA.Students may also qualify for the Washington College Grant, which covers tuition fees, building fees and services and activities fees at public four-year colleges. Families with up to 100 percent of Washington’s median family income may qualify.
  • The Hathaway Scholarship program is made up of both merit- and need-based awards that are put toward the cost of tuition at the University of Wyoming. There are four individual awards ranging from $840 to $1,680 per semester, based on the student’s GPA. Students must have a minimum high school GPA of 2.5 and maintain satisfactory academic progress while enrolled in college.

    Free 2-year college programs

    • The Arkansas Future Grant program, also known as ArFuture, covers the tuition and fees for students pursuing a certificate or associate degree at any Arkansas public community or technical college. Students must enroll in an eligible high-demand field of study, participate in a community service and mentoring program and commit to working in Arkansas after graduation for a minimum of three years.
    • California College Promise is a program that gives community colleges in California funding that they can use in specific ways to help make college more affordable. One of the approved funding allocations is one year of waived tuition and fees for first-time, full-time students. Students must complete the FAFSA and enroll in an eligible California community college district.
    • Colorado’s Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI) serves students with financial need by matching community scholarship funds. Community college students may qualify if they have a household income below 250 percent of the maximum income for Pell Grant eligibility and if they are participating in a student success program.
    • The Pledge to Advance Connecticut (PACT) is a program that covers the financial gap left after students receive federal and state grants. Qualified residents must be first-time, full-time college students, be enrolled in a degree or certification program, complete the FAFSA, remain in good academic standing and have graduated from a Connecticut high school. Students who already have their tuition covered through a Pell Grant or the Roberta B. Willis Need-Merit Scholarship may still receive a stipend of up to $250 per semester.
    • The Student Excellence Equals Degree (SEED) scholarship program provides tuition funds to state residents of all ages pursuing a degree at Delaware Technical and Community College or the University of Delaware’s Associate in Arts degree program. To become eligible, students must submit a FAFSA and enroll full time for at least their first semester. Students are eligible to participate in the program for up to 10 continuous semesters. Students above the age of 25 must meet a five-year Delaware residency requirement.
    • The Hawai‘i Promise Scholarship waives tuition costs for in-state students with financial need who are attending the University of Hawai‘i Community College. The scholarship covers tuition costs and fees and also includes an allowance for books, supplies and transportation. Students must complete the FAFSA, accept all applicable aid, be enrolled in at least six credit hours at a UH community college and make satisfactory academic progress.
    • Indiana’s Next Level Jobs Workforce Ready Grant covers the cost of tuition and regular fees for students attending Ivy Tech Community College, Vincennes University, Indiana Institute of Technology or another approved program. The grant covers two years of school or up to the required amount of program credits for those pursuing a certificate in advance manufacturing, building and construction, health sciences, IT services, business services and transportation and logistics. Students enrolled in a credit-bearing program must complete the FAFSA and maintain satisfactory academic progress. Independent students can enroll half-time, but dependent students must enroll full time.
    • The Kansas Promise Scholarship provides aid to recent high school graduates and students over the age of 21 who live in Kansas and plan to attend an in-state community college or public technical school. Students must complete their program within 30 months and agree to live and work in Kansas for two consecutive years following their program.
    • The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship covers tuition and fees for students enrolled in an approved program of study that will lead to a certification, diploma or Associate of Applied Science degree in health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation/logistics, business services/IT or construction. Students must maintain satisfactory academic progress and can receive the scholarship for up to four academic terms or 60 credit hours.
    • The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) provides a merit-based tuition-free college program to Louisiana residents who are attending or plan to attend an approved Louisiana community or technical college. To become eligible, students have a high school GPA that meets the requirements and enroll full time in their postsecondary program.
    • High school graduates from the class of 2020-23 who are pursuing an in-state associate degree or one-year crediential are eligible to apply for Maine’s last dollar Free College Scholarship. Students must complete the FAFSA, accept all state and federal grants and scholarships, enroll full time and participate in academic planning and advising. Students can receive up to two years of tuition-free community college.
    • The Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship awards qualifying students a maximum of $5,000 — or the cost of tuition, whichever is less — to pursue an associate degree, licensure, credit-bearing certificate or apprenticeship program at a Maryland community college. Students in the program must maintain a 2.5 GPA or make satisfactory academic progress, depending on the program. Single students or those in a single-parent household must have a maximum adjusted gross income of $100,000, and those who are married or in a two-parent household must have a maximum adjusted gross income of $150,000.
    • MASSGrant Plus waives tuition for eligible students who attend a qualifying in-state community college. Applicants must have unmet financial need for tuition and fees and be enrolled for at least six credit hours to qualify.
    • Michigan Reconnect gives eligible students age 25 and older the opportunity to attend community college tuition-free. Students must be enrolled at least half time, maintain a 2.0 GPA and participate in academic coaching programs or college success services to remain eligible.
    • The Minnesota Future Together Grant awards students pursuing an associate degree that will lead to a career in health care, STEM, business, industry and technology, education or public service. Students must attend a public higher education institution or Tribal College and meet income requirements.
    • Missouri residents who meet and maintain the academic and income eligibility requirements could have their college tuition paid for at certain private two-year vocational or technical schools through the A+ Scholarship Program. Scholarship recipients must perform at least 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or mentoring, maintain a record of good citizenship, maintain satisfactory academic progress and attend full time.
    • Through the Nevada Promise Scholarship, high school graduates have the opportunity to attend any of the state’s community colleges for a substantially lower price. The scholarship pays for up to three years of registration fees and other mandatory fees not covered by other financial aid. Students must enroll in at least 12 credit hours, meet regularly with a mentor, complete at least eight hours of eligible community service each semester and meet satisfactory academic progress requirements.
    • The New Jersey Community College Opportunity Grant pays students’ remaining tuition and approved related academic fees after financial aid at a community college. To qualify, students must have a total household adjusted gross income lower than $65,000 as recorded on the FAFSA, maintain satisfactory academic conduct and enroll in at least six credit hours per semester at an in-state community college.
    • New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship covers the cost of tuition for students seeking an associate degree or a credit-bearing career training certificate in a high-demand field at a New Mexico public college. Students must maintain a 2.5 GPA and be enrolled for at least six credit hours per semester.
    • Full-time residents of New York can score a tuition-free college education at all two-year SUNY and CUNY institutions with the Excelsior Scholarship. Students must fall under the income limitations and commit to living in New York for the same number of years they received the scholarship. Students must be enrolled in at least 12 credits per term and complete at least 30 credits per year.
    • The Longleaf Commitment Grant Program awards up to $2,800 per year for two years, intended to cover the cost of tuition at any of North Carolina’s community colleges. Students qualify if they have an expected family contribution of less than $15,000. Students must enroll in a North Carolina community college and enroll for at least six hours per semester.
    • The Oklahoma Promise covers up to the full cost of tuition at public two-year colleges after other aid has been applied. Students must have a household-adjusted gross income of less than $60,000 to qualify and be able to demonstrate good citizenship and strong academics while in high school.
    • The Oregon Promise helps cover the remaining tuition amount at qualifying in-state community colleges after federal and state grants are applied. Applicants must have a high school GPA of at least 2.0 or a GED score of at least 145, and they must enroll at least half-time in college.
    • Recipients of Rhode Island’s Promise have the opportunity to enroll in the Community College of Rhode Island and earn an associate degree tuition-free. Students must earn at least 30 credits each academic year, enroll each semester for two years, maintain a GPA of at least 2.5 and commit to live, work or continue their education in Rhode Island after graduation.
    • The South Carolina Workforce Scholarship covers the tuition and required fees at any of the state’s 16 technical colleges for residents majoring in a high-demand field of study, like health care, construction or education. Students must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA and be employed, take a financial literacy course or complete 100 hours of voluntary time contributing to a nonprofit or public service organization.
    • Tennessee high school graduates planning to enroll full time at an in-state community or technical college can apply for the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which covers tuition and fees after Pell Grant, HOPE scholarship and state student assistance funds have been applied. Each scholarship winner will be assigned a personal mentor to assist them in the college application process. While enrolled, students must complete a minimum of eight community service hours per term and maintain satisfactory academic progress.Students may also pursue Tennessee Reconnect, offered to adults who are enrolled in at least six credit hours in a program leading to a certificate or associate degree. Students must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 and participate in a college success program. This program covers the cost of tuition after other aid has been applied.
    • Vermonters with a family income under $75,000 can attend the Community College of Vermont tuition-free under the 802 Opportunity Grant. The grant covers the college’s $100 administrative fee as well. Students must complete a FAFSA and make satisfactory academic progress while enrolled.
    • Virginia’s G3 assistance program allows Virginia residents the opportunity to earn a tuition-free degree in a high-demand career field at an in-state community college. In addition to tuition, the program covers mandatory fees and includes a textbook stipend. To qualify, students must have a total household income of no more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level and be accepted and enrolled for at least six credit hours per semester. Students must make satisfactory academic progress and be pursuing a degree in early childhood education, health care, information technology, public safety or skilled trades.
    • The Washington College Grant covers up to the full cost of tuition fees, building fees and services and activities fees at public two-year colleges. The award is based on median family income, determined through the FAFSA or a state student aid application. Students must be enrolled at least part-time in their program.
    • West Virginia’s WV Invests Grant Program covers the cost of tuition and mandatory fees for certificate or degree programs in eligible high-demand fields. Applicants must complete at least two hours of approved community service per term, be enrolled for at least six credit hours per semester, pass a drug screening each academic year, maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 and agree to reside in West Virginia for at least two years after earning a degree.
    • The Hathaway Scholarship gives Wyoming residents the opportunity to earn awards of $840 to $1,680 per semester, to be applied to a Wyoming community college tuition. Four merit-based awards can then be supplemented by need-based scholarships to help cover a degree’s cost. GPA requirements vary by award, but students must have a minimum high school GPA of 2.5 to qualify. While enrolled in college, students must maintain satisfactory academic progress and a minimum GPA of 2.25 or 2.5, depending on the scholarship.

    How to make college more affordable

    There are plenty of ways to make the cost of earning a degree more affordable if you don’t qualify for tuition-free college or if you need help paying for expenses beyond tuition.

    Apply for need-based financial aid

    Students can apply for need-based financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Need-based financial aid is disbursed through the federal government and given to families based on their expected family contribution (EFC), or an estimate of the family’s total financial resources.

    Need-based aid may include work-study, federal and state grants or subsidized student loans.

    Take advantage of private scholarships

    There are thousands of private scholarships offered year-round, which can be need-based or merit-based. Often these scholarships are worth a low dollar amount, but there’s no limit to the amount you can apply for.

    To find unique scholarship opportunities, students should use a scholarship search engine and filter based on their experiences and interests. Many private organizations offer scholarships for niche hobbies or affiliations.

    Apply for student loans

    Students can apply for federal and private student loans to help finance the cost of their degree. Federal loans, available through the FAFSA, should come first. Interest rates are the same for all borrowers, and borrowers can access unique protections and benefits.

    Private student loans are offered by private lenders, banks and credit unions. Interest rates are based on the financial status of the borrower, meaning these loans are often more expensive than federal student loans. However, they’re useful if you’ve met your federal student loan limits.

    Enroll in AP courses or early college programs

    High school students can take advantage of college credit courses and programs while in high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP) classes or early college programs. These reduce the number of credits you have to pay for while enrolled in college, since those credits will be transferred from your high school.

    These classes are typically much more demanding than traditional high school courses, and it’s possible that credits won’t transfer to every college. If you’re on the fence, speak with your high school advisor or contact the admissions offices of any colleges you’re considering.

    Find a flexible part-time job

    College and high school students can apply for part-time jobs to help bolster savings and emergency funds, or to help pay for things like books and supplies. High school students should place all of their earnings into a separate high-yield savings account to prepare for college costs, and current college students can use their earnings to create a realistic budget each semester.

    The bottom line

    Whether it’s for a four-year degree or two-year certification program, free tuition could save students thousands of dollars each academic year and make obtaining a higher education more equitable. As tuition prices rise, students should do their research and look into everything they can to lower the cost of their education, especially when it comes to state and institutional tuition-free college programs. In almost all cases, these free tuition programs require a FAFSA, so it’s critical to stay on top of deadlines and submit your application as you can.