Long before free public college became a liberal rallying cry during the 2016 election, dozens of local programs had for years been offering high schoolers access to some form of either free or dramatically reduced tuition.
The newest statewide entrants are unique in the sense that the programs are funded entirely by the government. Most other free tuition programs rely on a mix of private donations and public funding. Often called "promise" programs, the offers are incredibly diverse, says Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition—and they're growing in number, he says, partly as a result of tremendous movement in state legislatures this year to develop programs.
"There are tens of thousands of families across the country who can experience free college tuition at some level," Winograd says.
Money wanted to highlight programs that reached the largest number of students in their respective areas, so we focused on programs that have near-universal eligibility; we allowed few restrictions beyond income cutoffs, community service or attendance requirements, or a 3.0 GPA. (That means we excluded new programs in Arkansas and Kentucky that are reserved for students in certain high-demand fields.)
"The research is clear that simplicity is critical to making these programs works," says Michelle Miller-Adams, who researches promise programs for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
The list below also allows local programs that prorate their benefits based on how long students have lived in the community—giving the full award only to those who've been residents for the longest period, but it excludes any programs that operate more like merit scholarships, with high GPA or any standardized test score requirements. Nearly all programs require you to fill out a FAFSA.
Finally, we focused only on programs that offered enough funding to pay tuition for an associate's degree or bachelor's degree, excluding programs where the dollar caps fell below the state's average tuition or that paid for only the first semester of tuition—as is the case for many California community college promise programs.
Here are 44 programs in 24 states where residents have access to at least two years of free college tuition.
- Promise for the Future pays for Pinal County graduates to attend Central Arizona College. The program pays tuition and fees after federal and state aid is used. Students need a 2.75 GPA in high school, and must complete 20 hours of community service, and then enroll in college the semester after graduating high school. More information.
- Arkansas's El Dorado Promise is a comparatively generous program. Graduates of El Dorado High School can get money to pay tuition at any accredited college in the country. Public colleges in Arkansas are fully covered. For private or out-of-state colleges, students can get an amount equal to the highest in-state Arkansas charge. The program, funded by Murphy Oil Co., is one of only two first-dollar scholarships in the country, meaning it pays tuition bills before other scholarships and grants are counted. More information.
- The Great River Promise covers Arkansas Northwestern College tuition and fees left over after federal and state grant aid. The program is for graduates of Mississippi County public high schools and covers four semesters for students enrolled full-time. Recipients must have lived in the county for four years and have a 95% attendance rate. More information.
- The Palomar Promise awards two years of free tuition at Palomar College for graduates of the San Marcos Unified School District. Recipients need a 2.5 GPA and have to take placement tests in core subjects. There's additional financial aid available for students who transfer after two years into California State University-San Marcos. More information.
- The Oakland Promise pays tuition for low-income graduates of Castlemont High School, Coliseum College Preparatory Academy, and Oakland High School. Recipients need at least a 2.0 GPA and 90% attendance. They can use the money at any accredited two- or four-year college. Award amounts vary depending on the type of college, but scholarships range from $1,000 to $16,000, with an average $10,000. More information. More information.
- Students who've lived in Ontario for at least two years before high school graduation can receive a full tuition scholarship to any California community college. To maintain eligibility, students need to have a 2.0 GPA and complete community service hours. More information.
- The Santa Barbara City College Promise covers two years of all enrollment costs, mandatory fees, books, and supplies for students who complete high school in the community college's district. Recipients must enroll full-time and be in good academic standing. More information.
- San Francisco's new Free City program will pay tuition (although not fees) for residents to attend City College for two years. Unlike many programs, San Francisco's isn't strictly tied to high school enrollment. Recipients just need to have lived in San Francisco for at least a year. More information.
- The Siskiyou Promise is a two-year scholarship for graduates of Siskiyou and Modoc county high schools that covers all tuition and mandatory enrollment fees. Recipients must enroll in at least 12 credits and earn a minimum 2.0 GPA to continue receiving the award, which kicks in after federal aid. More information.
- One of the better-known "promise" programs, the New Haven Promise has paid out about $6.2 million to more than 1,300 city residents since 2011. Recipients are required to complete 40 hours of community service and graduate high school with a 3.0 GPA. The program covers tuition expenses up to $10,000 at any in-state two- or four-year public college, or up to $2,500 at in-state private colleges. It kicks in after federal and state grants. More information.
- High school graduates use this state's Student Excellent Equals Degree (SEED) program to pay for two years of tuition at Delaware Technical Community College or the University of Delaware's associate degree program. The SEED Scholarship requires a 2.5 GPA. More information.
- Though it covers one of the smallest geographic areas on this list, the Tangelo Park program is also the oldest. Since 1994, the Rosen Foundation Scholarship has filled in financial gaps to cover the full cost of attendance at Florida public colleges for students who have lived in the Tangelo Park community (outside Orlando) for at least two years, attended an eligible high school, and applied for financial aid. More information.
- The Galesburg Promise covers tuition after other financial aid for up to 16 credits per semester for two years at Carl Sandburg College. Recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA and a 67% pass rate. More information.
- The Bethany Good Life Scholarship will pay tuition for graduates of McPherson or Saline County high schools who are attending Bethany College starting in fall 2017. The scholarship doesn’t carry many requirements beyond getting accepted and living on campus. This is the first year the program will be in effect, and funding is available for five years. More information.
- Hopkinsville high schoolers can attend Hopkinsville Community College tuition free, thanks to the local Rotary Club. Students need a 2.5 GPA and 95% attendance rate. More information.
- High school graduates from Paducah and McCracken counties are eligible for up to 60 credits tuition-free at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. To receive the money, students must commit to the program as ninth-graders and maintain a 2.5 GPA and 95% attendance rate during high school. The program covers tuition costs after all other financial aid. More information.
- High school graduates from Garrett County, on the western edge of Maryland, are eligible for the full cost of tuition at two-year Garrett College. Recipients must have lived in the county for at least two years and have to enroll as full-time students. More information.
- Boston residents attending Bunker Hill, MassBay, or Roxbury community colleges can get tuition and fees covered after federal grants are applied. To participate, students need to qualify for a Pell grant—a federal grant reserved for low-income students—and earn at least a 2.0 GPA during high school. More information.
- Students who graduate from one of the two public high schools in Battle Creek can take up to 62 credits, or five years' worth of courses, at Kellogg Community College—enough to earn an associate's degree. The amount of the award is based on a student's length of residence in the city. More information.
- The Kalamazoo Promise, the most famous of the country's promise programs, will cover between 65% and 100% of tuition and fees based on a student's length of enrollment in Kalamazoo public schools. The money can be used at any public college in Michigan, as well as at a list of Michigan private colleges. Unlike most other free-tuition programs, Kalamazoo is a first-dollar award, meaning recipients can still receive federal grants and local scholarships to pay for room and board. Recipients also have a comparatively long 10-year window to use the award. More information.
- High school graduates from Benton Harbor can get two years of tuition and fees covered at any in-state community college or technical school. More information.
- The Lansing Promise is a last-dollar program that covers tuition and fees for up to 60 credits at Lansing Community College, or the equivalent dollar value at Michigan State University or Olivet College. More information.
- Pontiac-area high school graduates can receive up to 65 credits or three years' worth of tuition and fees at Oakland Community College. The program kicks in after other forms of financial aid; it also will cover the equivalent of an associate's degree at any public Michigan college. More information.
- Students in the Saginaw Promise zone can receive last-dollar support to cover tuition and fees at any two-year program in the state—or $8,000 if they attend a four-year college. More information.
- The Baldwin Promise pays up to $5,000 annually for four years, based on how much is owed for tuition and fees after federal and state grants are applied. Recipients must have attended high school in Baldwin since ninth grade. The money can be used any public or private college in the state. More information.
- Students who attend one of two qualifying middle schools and then graduate from Union High School can qualify for the Grand Rapids Promise program. Recipients have to sign up as middle schoolers, maintain good academic standing, and attend scholar events to receive the money, which covers tuition and fees after other financial aid at any in-state public college. More information.
- Detroit residents are eligible for free tuition and fees at local two-year campuses, as well as at a list of about 18 four-year partner colleges. There are no GPA or test requirements to use the scholarship for two-year programs, but students must have a 3.0 GPA and a 1060 SAT for four-year scholarships. More information.
- The Power of You scholarship covers tuition and fees at two community colleges in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. Recipients must have a family income below $75,000, graduate from a list of approved high schools, and meet other requirements, including taking placement tests and filing a FAFSA. More information.
- The A+ Scholarship covers the balance for tuition and fees after other financial aid is applied, for graduates of more than 500 designated high schools who are attending community colleges and technical schools. Recipients need a 2.5 GPA and 95% attendance rate, and they're required to participate in 50 hours of tutoring or mentoring. The maximum amount is set based on the standard per-credit charge at the State Technical College of Missouri. More information.
- Graduates of Buffalo high school can have the full cost of tuition and fees, after other financial aid, covered at New York public colleges through the Say Yes Buffalo scholarship. At in-state private colleges, recipients from families earning less that $75,000 receive the same award, while those from families earning more than that can get a flat $5,000 a year. More information.
- Say Yes Syracuse is a last-dollar scholarship program that covers tuition and fees for Syracuse City School District graduates. The award covers the full gap left over after other financial aid at State University of New York and City University of New York campuses, but if you enroll at a private college and your family earns more than $75,000, the award is capped at $5,000 a year. More information.
- New York's new Excelsior Scholarship will cover tuition and fees up to $5,500 at all two-year and four-year public in-state colleges. The scholarship kicks in after other federal and state financial aid. Students from families earning less than $100,000 qualify (this amount will increase to $125,000 in 2019). The program is the first statewide free tuition program, but there is an important caveat: After graduation, recipients must live and work in New York for the amount of time they received the scholarship, or the money will be converted into a loan.
- Cleveland County Promise provides funding to local graduates to attend any accredited two- or four-year college in the country. The dollar amount is based on tuition and fees at the most expensive North Carolina public college, and it's applied after federal financial aid but before university or private scholarships. Recipients must complete a personal finance course, maintain good attendance, and enroll as a full-time student. More information.
- Say Yes Guilford pays for tuition and fees of Guilford County graduates based on family income and how long the student has lived in the area. Students who've lived in the school district since ninth grade and have family incomes under $40,000 will have all tuition and fees covered after state and federal aid is applied. The scholarship can be used at in-state two- and four-year colleges, plus a list of private college partners. More information.
- Graduates of Williams County high schools are eligible for a last-dollar scholarship to cover tuition and fees at Williston State College for four consecutive semesters. Recipients must enroll full-time. More information.
- Tulsa Achieves covers the amount owed for tuition and fees after other financial aid is applied for three years or 63 credits at Tulsa Community College. Recipients must be from Tulsa County high schools, enroll right after high school and need at 2.0 GPA. More information.
- Oklahoma’s Promise pays tuition at any Oklahoma public university for up to five years. It will also cover a portion of tuition at in-state private colleges. To be eligible, students must apply during the eighth, ninth or 10th grade. Their family’s annual income must be under $50,000 at the time of application, and cannot exceed $100,000 at the time the student goes to college. More information.
- The Oregon Promise covers most of tuition costs for recent high school graduates attending community colleges. The scholarship covers costs left over after federal and state aid, and the maximum dollar amount is set based on the average cost of enrolling in 12 credits per semester. (That was about $3,400 in 2016-17.) Recipients need a 2.5 GPA to qualify, and can get funding for between six and 12 credits per semester. The program started without an income cutoff, but facing budget pressures, lawmakers recently announced that grants to wealthier families (those earning roughly $100,000 or more) would be cut off. More information.
- Philadelphia's low-income high school graduates can enroll at the Community College of Philadelphia tuition-free. Recipients must be eligible for a federal Pell grant, enroll full-time, and maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college. More information.
- Graduates of Pittsburgh public schools who hold a 2.5 GPA and 95% attendance rate can get money for tuition at any two- or four-year college in Pennsylvania. Recipients must have attended Pittsburgh schools since kindergarten to receive full funding, which is $7,500 per year and $30,000 total. More information.
- One of the latest states to join the free tuition movement, Rhode Island will pay for two years of tuition and fees at the Community College of Rhode Island. There is no income cutoff, but students must have a 2.5 GPA, enroll full-time and have to remain in the state after earning a degree or the grant is turned into a loan. More information.
- The Tennessee Promise scholarship pays all tuition and mandatory fees not covered by other financial aid. Recipients have to complete eight hours of community service each semester, maintain a 2.0 GPA, and participate in program mentoring. This year, a similar program, called Tennessee Reconnect, was launched for adult students. More information.
- The Wythe-Bland Foundation Scholarship Program pays for tuition and fees (after other aid) to attend Wytheville Community College in southwest Virginia. Recipients must graduate from the schools in Wythe or Bland counties. More information.
- The Gateway Technical Promise will cover tuition costs after federal and state grants have kicked in for any of about 50 associate's degree programs, as well as certain diploma programs in technical fields such as welding. Recipients need to have a minimum 2.0 GPA in high school, enroll full-time, and meet income cutoffs. More information.
Sources: List compiled from information from the Upjohn Institute, the Campaign for Free College Tuition, and the College Promise Campaign.
Do you know about an eligibility change to one of the programs above or a free tuition program we missed? Tell us at email@example.com.
Note: Money initially produced this list with programs that had a GPA cutoff no higher than 2.5. After hearing feedback from some program officials and readers, we increased the limit to a 3.0 GPA, which is equivalent to a B grade.