The prospect of paying for college can be daunting. College costs continue to rise at a rate that is higher than available financial aid, according to a study from the College Board. And the few options for debt relief, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, may not be quite as accessible as first thought. Confusion from loan servicers about eligibility left some graduates unable to apply for the first round of forgiveness in October 2017.
With such stories receiving wide media attention, it is helpful to understand the options available to help students gain access to affordable college educations, such as:
- Tennessee Promise
- Tennessee Reconnect
- Rhode Island Promise
- Oregon Promise
- New York's Excelsior Scholarship
Free tuition programs like these offer a key solution that might prevent future generations of college graduates from amassing as much debt — as of September 2017, the average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt. However, students do need to understand the terms of these programs before signing on the dotted line.
States with Free College Programs
New York, Rhode Island, Oregon and Tennessee have all enacted free tuition programs for residents regardless of the degree they are pursuing. Other states, including Kentucky, Arkansas, and Minnesota have programs in place with requirements, such as needing to enroll in certain fields like healthcare, computer science and manufacturing.
Tennessee was the first to offer a tuition-free option in 2015 with its Tennessee Promise Program. The state currently offers two-years of free tuition for residents attending in-state community or technical colleges.
The state also now has a second free tuition program: Tennessee Reconnect. This program will start in the fall of 2018 and be available to adults ages 24 and over who are looking to start or finish a degree at an eligible community college, technical college or four year institution offering an associate degree program.
Similar to Tennessee, Rhode Island created the Rhode Island Promise program in 2017 offering a tuition-free community college experience to high school graduates or those who completed the 2017 GED when they were younger than the age of 19.
Oregon's Promise program includes similar specs as Rhode Island's. It's a grant covering most of the cost of community college. It does not include books, fees or housing. It also requires a $50 copay, which is automatically deducted each semester. The program launched in 2016 and is available to recent Oregon high school graduates and GED recipients who matriculate within 6 months of graduation.
Finally, the most ambitious of the tuition-free programs: New York's Excelsior Scholarship expands beyond community college and enables residents to attend four-year SUNY (The State University of New York) and CUNY (The City University of New York) schools tuition-free. These students must be from a household with a federal adjusted gross income of no more than $100,000 for 2017-18 or $110,000 for the 2018-19 academic years. The Excelsior Scholarship is bundled with other student financial aid programs to enable residents to graduate debt free.
The old adage is true: There's no such thing as a free lunch. Getting free college tuition will understandably come with a few strings attached.
While New York offers the most comprehensive program, it also asks the most of recipients. Recipients of the Excelsior Scholarship must live in New York state after graduation for the same number of years they received the scholarship. So if you take four years to get your degree, then you need to live and work in New York for four years after graduating college. Those who leave the state before that period will have their scholarship converted to a zero-interest, 10-year loan, which will be serviced by the Higher Education Services Corporation.
Tennessee also requires students to do more than attend class. The Promise Program requires potential recipients to attend mandatory meetings with a mentor who helps guide students through the college admissions process. Recipients must also complete eight hours of community service per semester. This is in addition to maintaining a minimum 2.0 GPA and enrolling in community college or technical school as a full-time student by the semester following graduation. Failure to comply results in losing eligibility for future semesters.
The Reconnect program requires at least part-time enrollment, applicants cannot have completed a prior associate's or bachelor's degree, must be a state resident for at least 12 months and must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form.
Oregon and Rhode Island
Oregon Promise pays up to the average cost of Oregon community college tuition. Students will be required to cover any tuition that is above the cut off. For 2017-18, the average cost is $3,540. There is a maximum credit hour limit of 90, and once a student has received 90 credits, they are no longer eligible for Oregon Promise. Oregon does require residency for a minimum of 12 months to be eligible for the tuition-free program. Oregon also mandates a student be enrolled for 12 credits per semester while Rhode Island dictates 15. Both Oregon and Rhode Island require students to have graduated from an in-state high school and carry a minimum 2.5 GPA.
Similar to New York, Rhode Island does ask program graduates to remain state residents because policy makers consider the program an investment in the future of state. There is no penalty, however, for those who leave the state after graduation.
Keep Reading the Fine Print
These programs are in their infancy, which means some could have different requirements or cease to exist entirely in a few years if any of them lose funding.
Oregon Promise already went through changes after lawmakers budgeted $40 million instead of the needed $48 million. Eligibility for the program in 2017-19 is now based on income-related criteria. Lawmakers also adjusted the 6-month enrollment requirement to provide a potential waiver to students with significant hardships, new recruits in the Oregon National Guard or those working in certain farming-related careers.
Taking advantage of free tuition options around the country — especially to complete two years of college debt free before transferring to a four-year university — could be a great option for high school graduates. However, just like with any contractual agreement, it is important to read the fine print and keep abreast of new information.
We encourage you to consult your state directly for more details on free or discounted tuition programs.
FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.
Discover Student Loans is not affiliated with any tuition programs.