It’s no surprise that the cost of going to college can be overwhelming and discouraging for many individuals. With student loan debt reaching more than $1.57 trillion, you might be wondering if there’s a better or more affordable way to attend school. The good news is that you can go to community college for less money and, in some cases, for free.
While President Joe Biden has recently proposed offering free community college education to students across the nation, so far, community college funding programs have primarily been left up to states to decide. So, what options do you have right now?
In this guide, we’ll walk you through some key benefits of community college, states offering free community college tuition and other helpful resources to lower the cost of your college tuition.
The Benefits of Going to Community College
Community college can get a bad rap, but the truth is that many community colleges offer incredible educational opportunities for a lower price. Not only are they located in your own community, but they also offer many advantages over traditional higher education options.
Here are a few key benefits to keep in mind when exploring community colleges.
- More affordable: The key perk to attending community college is the affordability. In fact, even without a free community college program or financial aid, community college tends to cost around $3,500 per school year, compared to $35,000 for out-of-state, four-year colleges. That’s over $30,000 in savings.
- Study different applicable skills: Often, community colleges allow you more opportunities to study trades and technical skills that large colleges do not. These programs might offer certifications or degrees at a fraction of the cost of traditional trade schools.
- State school partnerships: In addition, many community colleges have partnerships with state schools, allowing you to earn an associate degree (or even a bachelor’s degree) from a larger university at community college pricing. Others offer excellent transfer opportunities, letting you save big on your first two years of college before moving up to a state university.
- More lenient application requirements: Applying to a community college is also often easier than state, private, or public colleges or higher education institutions. If you’re worried about your GPA, attending community college is often a good solution that allows you to earn a degree even with lower grades.
- Better opportunities to explore future careers: If you’re not sure what you want to do after college, it may seem risky to spend tens of thousands each year trying to figure it out. If you switch majors or declare one later in your higher education career, it might even mean that you need to attend for an extra academic year or two, which means shelling out more money. Community colleges offer a great place to explore prerequisites for majors to decide what you love doing. It’s also much more affordable to switch your major at a community college than a larger university.
- Flexible class schedules: Many students work full-time or part-time while attending college, so a flexible schedule might be necessary. While most larger universities and colleges hold the bulk of their classes during the day, community colleges are designed with working adults in mind and typically offer more night classes and flexibility when it comes to planning your class roster.
- Live at home while attending classes: One major benefit of attending community college is that most students can live with family or friends while completing school. This could save you tens of thousands of dollars in room and board at a more expensive college.
There are many great reasons to explore attending a community college, but one major benefit is that many community colleges provide free education to students. Find out how below.
How Free Community College Works
Many states offer programs that help fund community college education, so that high school graduates can attend higher education classes for free. This free voucher covers the cost of classes and enrollment only and typically doesn’t provide money for other expenses. This means you’ll need to pay for your own books, transportation, room and board, food, and other essentials. It’s important to account for these mandatory fees and outside expenses when designing a college budget, so you’re not left worrying about financial costs.
How free community college programs work vary by state. Some require you to maintain a certain level of academic performance each year, while others have fewer requirements.
Even if you think you qualify for a free community college program, it’s important to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to find out if you qualify for financial aid. If you do, you might be able to attend a community college (or other college) for free while also receiving money for other expenses, like room and board, books, and dining expenses. You never know what types of Pell Grants or other financial aid you might be eligible for if you don’t fill out a financial aid application.
States That Offer Tuition-Free Community College
Right now, there is a large selection of states that offer free community college programs. These states include:
- New York
- Rhode Island
These are the only states that currently offer full, free-tuition programs for community college students, but other states are actively pursuing similar pathways.
Qualifying for free community college has different eligibility requirements depending on the state you live in. Most programs are tied to academic performance, which means eligible students will need to maintain a certain GPA and/or SAT or ACT test scores to qualify for free schooling. Free college may also only be offered to full-time students taking at least 12 or 15 credit hours.
Other programs offer “last-dollar funding,” which is designed to help pay for remaining community college costs after a student’s financial aid award is exhausted. Some programs also offer more aid to low-income students in financial need.
You can explore free community college program options in your state by visiting your state’s Department of Education website or by talking to your high school guidance counselor. Even if your school doesn’t offer free community college education, there might be additional funding or scholarships available for those who choose to attend community college.
Other Ways to Attend College for Free
While community colleges offer great ways to attend college for less money, there are many other options worth exploring. Applying for scholarships as early as your junior year is a great way to boost your chances of ensuring your education fees are covered. Maintaining a high GPA can also elevate your likelihood to receive more financial aid, grants and scholarships.
Some students may be eligible for a Pell Grant. Pell Grants are need-based federal financial aid which does not have to be repaid. It is mainly awarded to students who come from low-income households. They may not cover all living expenses during your time in college, but they can significantly cover tuition and fees for many students.
Don’t forget about less traditional means to fund college, as well. Work-study programs can often help you pay for the difference between financial aid coverage and tuition costs while providing you with valuable hands-on job experience. If you plan on working through college or returning to school, your employer might even pay for all or some of the costs. Some employers will foot the bill upfront, approve you for a monthly or yearly education stipend, or offer student loan payoffs after you graduate.
Lastly, consider going to school for a major with student loan forgiveness, like a teacher or public service official. While you’ll still need to pay your student loans for approximately 10 years, at the end of this time, your student debt should be forgiven.
Get More Information About Financial Prep for College at CollegeFinance.com
Preparing for college can seem overwhelming, particularly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Avoiding student loans whenever possible can help keep you out of debt, and community college is often a great way to earn the education you want without owing tens or hundreds of thousands upon graduation.
If you’ve been worried about how to pay for your college education, are looking for community college resources or want more information on college prep, CollegeFinance.com can help. Our extensive planning articles and resource guides can help you navigate through the college planning process with ease. Do you need additional assistance with financing your college education? Check out our financial aid resources and scholarship pages for more details.