How to Go to Community College in California for Free

Written by: Matt Kuncaitis
Updated: 7/14/21

Having a formal education can open up doors to more job opportunities and serve as the starting point for career success. Unfortunately, higher education in the United States is expensive. Community colleges are dedicated to providing practical, quality education to students at affordable rates. This is a great option for many students. The average tuition for community college is less than half the cost of a public university.

In some states, you may even be able to attend community college for free. Many California community colleges offer free tuition options to help you get the knowledge and skills you need for a brighter future — without breaking the bank. This article details free tuition options in California and explains how you can take advantage of them.

Is Community College Free in California?

Community college isn’t free across the board in California. As of 2021, the state has 116 community colleges, each with its own programs and fees — as well as scholarships, grants, and other cost-cutting measures.

For example, Sacramento City College – Los Rios Community College District tuition and enrollment fees for 2020-2021 are $46 per unit for residents and $353 per unit for non-residents. In addition to cooperating with federal and state grant and financial aid programs, the school offers its own financing initiatives, like SCC Philanthropy Scholarships and a textbook voucher assistance program.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Trade-Tech (LATTC), has enrollment fees of $46 per unit for residents and $289 for non-residents (out-of-state). In addition to cooperating with diverse federal and state financial aid and grant programs, LATTC offers its own general scholarships for which students can apply (the minimum qualification is a cumulative GPA minimum of 2.0).

These are just two examples. The point is, not all community colleges in California are free. Tuition and fees still apply. However, the costs are lower than a usual two-year or four-year state university. Further, community colleges offer many options for covering costs.

California offers some impressive initiatives designed to cover the cost of tuition — essentially making school free. The state government has been a pioneer in creating an environment where all community college students can access educational opportunities, regardless of financial means. 

Who Qualifies for Free Community College in California?

Foreseeing a need to foster a skilled workforce for the future, the government of California implemented two programs to help students pay tuition and make it easier to get an education. The programs were named the California College Promise Program and the California College Promise Grant. 

What Is the California College Promise Program?

The California College Promise Program provides free tuition to students who attend a community college for the first two years of their education. When it was first established, the Promise Program only covered one year of free tuition. The program was expanded by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019.

To qualify for the California College Promise Program, you must meet the following criteria:

  • You must be a California resident or AB 540 eligible student (the California Dream Act waives enrollment fees for non-resident “dreamers”).
  • You must be a full-time student.
  • You must be a first-time student.

However, this program isn’t available at all community colleges. The school must waive students’ enrollment fees to take part in the free tuition program. Under the AB 19 bill governing the program, colleges are permitted to implement the California College Promise in different ways. Some schools opt to use the funds for other forms of student support, like helping cover the cost of child care or providing waivers for books.

If you take part in the Promise Program to cover tuition costs, you still have other costs to consider, like housing, books, or food. However, there are other grants and scholarships you can use to offset these costs., an initiative of California Community Colleges, provides a list of grants, scholarships, and other types of financial aid.

There are also funding programs available for “special populations,” such as veterans or individuals displaced from their homes by natural disasters.

If you don’t qualify for the California College Promise Program, you may qualify for the California College Promise Grant.  

What Is the California College Promise Grant?

The California College Promise Grant pays community college fees for low-income California residents attending community college in the state.

This grant is available regardless of the number of units the student takes (e.g., you aren’t cut off after two years). Students are eligible for this grant even if they’ve been studying already.

To qualify for the California College Promise Grant, you must be a California resident or AB 540 eligible student (the California Dream Act waives enrollment fees for non-resident “dreamers”). Further, you must demonstrate financial need.

How can you prove financial need? You may qualify if:

  • You receive Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI/SSP), or another form of government assistance for low-income families.
  • You meet the low-income standards according to federal poverty guidelines. For example, as of January 2021, a two-person household must earn less than $17,420 to qualify (in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.; numbers vary for Alaska and Hawaii).
  • You complete the California Dream Act Application (CADAA) or Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to demonstrate further unmet financial need.

If you meet the criteria, you may be eligible for a California College Promise Grant.

How to Go to Community College in California for Free

The programs described are available only to California residents (including those who qualify under AB 540). You are generally considered a California resident if you spend more than six months within a 12-month period in the state and have an established “center of life” in California (e.g., you have a business in California or work for a California employer).

If you are not a California resident, you might consider establishing residency. To establish residency for qualifying tuition purposes, you must establish a continuous physical presence in California for at least one year (365 days minimum), you must be a legally permitted resident of the United States (or AB 540 eligible), you must prove you plan to stay in California and make it your home, and further must prove your financial independence.

Applying for the California College Promise Program

As mentioned, not all community colleges provide free tuition as part of the California College Promise Program. Accordingly, application processes vary between institutions. If you’re interested in taking part in the Promise Program, take the following steps:

  1. Find a school offering free tuition via the Promise Program. This community college locator can help.
  2. Confirm your school’s eligibility criteria for the Promise Program. Eligibility criteria may include:
    • Proof of California residency (or dream status)
    • Confirmation of first-time student status and full-time enrollment
    • Completion of the CADAA or FAFSA
    • Proof you aren’t eligible for the California College Promise Grant
  3. Apply via your school. Most schools offer an online application process and (assuming they participate in tuition-free Promise Programs) will give you the option to indicate whether you want to take part in the program during the application process. For example, California’s Coast Colleges use this proprietary online system.

If you take part in your school’s Promise Program, you must maintain eligibility by maintaining a  GPA minimum of 2.0 and maintaining your full-time status. Further, you may be required to meet with a counselor to outline your educational plan and ensure you are keeping or exceeding the GPA minimum.

Applying for the California College Promise Grant

Do you meet the eligibility criteria for the California College Promise Grant? In this case, you can apply for the grant via a general statewide portal (not via a specific school). Here’s a quick overview of how to apply:

  1. Confirm your eligibility. Here are the requirements.
  2. Complete the CADAA or FAFSA to confirm your financial need.
  3. Complete the application via CCCApply.

If you get the grant, you must complete at least 50% of your coursework and maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher to keep it.

Alternatives for Non-Residents

If you can’t move to California, then why not consider moving to another state offering free tuition? Many states offer comparable programs to help students gain affordable access to education, including:

  • New York: The Excelsior Scholarship provides free tuition for qualifying undergraduates attending in-state two-year and four-year colleges. 
  • Oregon: Oregon offers qualifying high school students or GED recipients free community college. Learn about the Oregon Promise Grant.
  • Tennessee: Tennessee offers high school graduates two years of free tuition at the state’s technical schools and public community colleges. Find out how it works.

Get More Information on College Tuition and Planning at

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