Many States Offer Tuition-Free College Programs

Farran Powell , Emma Kerr

As more states seek to help students overcome the rising cost of college, many legislatures are turning to tuition-free programs.

Beginning this year, for example, Maryland students are able to access free community college through a bill signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2018. Maryland provides up to $5,000 in scholarships to in-state students from families earning less than $150,000 a year and who meet other eligibility requirements.

Like the vast majority of tuition-free college programs provided at the state level, the Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship is a "last-dollar program." That means grant dollars are used to cover the remainder of tuition costs after federal Pell Grants, awarded to those who demonstrate exceptional financial need, and state aid are exhausted.

[Read: What Free College Could Mean for You.]

To qualify for a statewide promise program, students typically must meet certain eligibility requirements, such as qualify as low- or middle-income or meet a minimum GPA. Some state programs, like the Arkansas Future Grant, also require recipients to remain in the state for a specific period after completing their program.

"While states often describe their programs as universal, in reality they include extensive eligibility requirements intended to either ration the benefit in order to bring down costs or direct the benefit to certain populations of students," according to a 2018 report by the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank in the District of Columbia.

Over the last four years, several states have enacted these types of programs for tuition-free college. On its website, the nonpartisan, national College Promise Campaign lists 24 states that have "actively passed and taken steps to implement" a free-tuition program as of late April 2019, and numerous others with recent legislative activity around creating or expanding a promise program.

[Read: 14 Tuition-Free Colleges.]

The movement gained momentum after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in 2015. In that speech, Obama said, "Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today."

At the time, the Tennessee Promise scholarship was one of two last-dollar programs at the state level. Since 2015, a number of states have enacted legislation for a promise or similar tuition-free program, including Maryland, New York, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, Montana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Arkansas, Nevada, West Virginia, Indiana and Washington.

[Read: See Which Cities Offer Tuition-Free College Programs.]

Many of these programs bear similar hallmarks: a last-dollar grant program that primarily assists recent high school graduates to attend two-year colleges. New York, with its Excelsior Scholarship program, however, is the only state program to offer last-dollar assistance to students at the four-year level, in addition to the two-year level.

To qualify for these programs, in-state students must usually apply to the state's tuition-free scholarship program and submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The amount of available funding, eligibility requirements and the status and limitations of the program can vary widely from state to state.

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