Live in One of These 4 States? You Might Qualify for Free College Tuition

Free college
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Editor’s Note: Since originally publishing this post, Tennessee passed legislation to expand its free college program. Details of this expansion are below.

The high cost of college is one of the reasons millions of Americans feel like they’re up to their eyeballs in debt that will never go away.

Yes, there is help available, such as financing with a better interest rate or working a public sector job to get your student loan forgiven (as long as the government doesn’t double back on its promises).

You can reduce the financial load by going to a less expensive school, securing scholarships and grants or trying these wacky ways to pay off student loan debt.

But wouldn’t it be glorious if you just didn’t have to pay for college to begin with?

According to CNNMoney, lawmakers in New York approved their state budget last month, which included a scholarship program that allows low- to middle-income residents to attend the more than 80 schools in its State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY) systems, tuition-free.

Free College Tuition is a Reality in These Places

While New York isn’t the first state to offer free college options, it’s the first in the country to offer a tuition-free plan for a four-year degree.

Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota — and the city of San Francisco — formerly approved plans for students to get two years of free education at community colleges. Rhode Island is looking to become the next state to do the same.

So how can you take advantage of free college tuition if you live in one of these areas?

New York

New York’s plan, the Excelsior Scholarship, is income-dependent and available for students taking 30 credits or more. It’s a “last-dollar program,” meaning if students receive other federal or state grants, that money will be taken from the bottom line before this scholarship is applied.

Money will cover tuition but not room and board or other fees.

The program will be phased in over three years. This fall, undergrad students are eligible if their family earns no more than $100,000 a year. Next year, the income cap will jump to $110,000. In 2019, the limit will settle at $125,000.

Another important detail: Those who receive the scholarship must continue living and working in state for the same number of years they received the free tuition. Otherwise, the scholarship will be converted into a loan.


In 2015, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to offer free community college to all recent high school grads through its Tennessee Promise scholarship program. It’s also a last-dollar program, but students are eligible regardless of income.

To qualify, students must complete eight hours of community service, file the FAFSA, meet with a mentor before each semester and maintain a 2.0 GPA.

In May 2017, Tennessee expanded its free-college program to all adults without an associate or bachelor’s degree, not just recent high school grads. CNN Money reports the changes will take effect in the fall of 2018.

To qualify, you must be an independent student, fill out the FAFSA and maintain a 2.0 GPA. Unlike high school grads, adult students don’t have the community service or mentor requirements.

The Tennessee Promise scholarship program is not just limited to the state’s 13 community colleges. Students can use the scholarship at 27 technical colleges or to cover up to $4,000 towards associate degree programs at eligible four-year schools.

Check here for a list of institutions that accept the Tennessee Promise scholarship.


Students can take advantage of free tuition at any of Oregon’s 17 community colleges, through its Oregon Promise grant, another last-dollar program.

Recent high school graduates or GED recipients qualify regardless of income, as long as they have a GPA of at least 2.5 or a GED score of at least 145. Students maintain eligibility by having at least half-time enrollment and completing a “first-year experience” program at their school.

Funding for the 2017-18 school year is subject to budget approval from the state legislature.


Minnesota launched a pilot program last year to fund tuition for students enrolling in occupational programs at two-year colleges.

The grant was offered to students with household incomes of $90,000 or less who enrolled in fall 2016. It covers tuition costs for two years, after other federal or state funding is taken into account.

San Francisco

This year, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to announce free community college to residents, regardless of income, according to Forbes.

In the fall, students will be able to attend school through the City College of San Francisco, either full-time or part-time, and can even get some funding to cover books, supplies and other fees.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo wants to make two years of college free for residents through the Rhode Island Promise scholarship.

Lawmakers are currently considering the governor’s proposal, which would cover the cost of tuition and mandatory fees for recent high school graduates attending one of the state’s three public colleges, according to CNN Money.

Those attending a community college would have the first two years funded, and those attending a four-year institution would have the last two years covered, as an effort to ensure graduation.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.