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Is Free College Actually Free?

California recently signed a new law giving residents a year of free college tuition, bringing numbers of states now offering free college at some level to five. Even so, current federal, state and university aid may offer most prospective students more financial aid.

We asked Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities what families need to know about getting all or part of their education paid for.

Which states offer free tuition?

"The states that offer at least one year of free tuition for qualified students at the two-year level are California, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Oregon," Harnisch says. "New York offers it up to four years. Some other states have free tuition for select high-demand certificate and associate degree program," including welding and various majors in the medical field.

Can you qualify for free tuition if you don't live in one of these states?

There are many free tuition programs in local communities. The best way to research what programs are available in your area are to contact the financial aid office at your local community college or university. High school counselors are also aware of local programs might be available.

Are there rules and eligibility requirements that have to be followed?

The eligibility requirements can include, but are not limited to, the following: GPA requirements, family income, minimum credit loads, living in the state after college, and the field of study, Harnisch says. "They generally do not cover non-tuition costs, including books and housing."

Georgia, for example, offers the HOPE scholarship program where GPA is considered and residents must attend approved Georgia state schools, including the University of Georgia.

Do free tuition programs cause decreases in other financial aid awards?

"Last Dollar" Financial AidCover remaining tuition costs after subtracting any other federal and state financial aid received.
"First Dollar" Financial Aid
  • Pay tuition without considering other financial aid.
  • Allow students the opportunity to use other financial aid to cover non-tuition expenses.

These free tuition programs are mostly "last dollar" financial aid, which cover remaining tuition costs after subtracting any other federal and state financial aid received. For some low-income students, they won't have anything left over for free tuition programs to pay. Pell Grants, the federal program that offers up to $5,920 on income and cost of attendance, is just one of the ways students can receive money for college. Yet, they'll still have to come with funds to cover housing, books, etc. Only "first dollar" free tuition programs that pay tuition without considering other financial aid allow students the opportunity to use other financial aid to cover non-tuition expenses. However, due to the higher cost of "first dollar" programs, states award aid on last-dollar approach.

What other money could people look at getting for college for free?

First, even if free tuition is awarded, students still should apply for scholarships and other aid that may cover books and housing. These expenses can be pricier than tuition. The federal American Opportunity Tax Credit can cover $2,500 of tuition, books and supplies. And never forget to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible to find out what aid you might receive. Many state programs start with filling out the FAFSA.

See: 7 Mistakes That Could Cost You Thousands in Federal Student Aid

Are these programs at risk for going away?

"Most state-level free tuition programs are at the mercy of state budgets," says Harnisch. "There are examples where state lawmakers have not allocated enough funding to keep pace with program demand, and the free tuition programs have had to prioritize certain students, like those from low-income backgrounds. If states fall into recessions, it is possible that they could ration their free tuition programs or eliminate them."

The good news is these programs are just one option for free or reduced college prices. An all out approach of researching available funds by filling out the FAFSA, looking at state websites, and talking to high school guidance counselors and college financial aid officers is the best way to reduce the cost of college attendance.

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