Community college is a great choice financially for many students for several reasons. Cheaper courses than universities, not paying to live on campus and more can save students a lot of money, especially if they just attend community college for their first years to gain credits, which can count toward a university degree program.
This article will discuss the costs associated with attending community college, including an overview of which states offer free community college and how to qualify.
The Costs of Attending a Community College
The primary expense of a community college education comes from tuition. Tuition is the money you pay to attend courses and earn credits toward your degree — whether that be an associate degree or bachelor’s degree. Other expenses include course fees, textbooks, supplies, transportation and living expenses. The following sections describe each in more detail.
Tuition Costs at Community Colleges
Tuition is generally what most people think of when they think of the “cost of attending” college. The cost of community college tuition varies by the specific school, so it’s not really possible to give a specific answer for how much tuition costs at community college. However, tuition for courses is generally cheaper than at universities.
According to EducationData.org, a website that publishes data about the U.S. educational system, the average cost of tuition for in-district community college attendance is $3,340 in 2021. Out-of-state students are usually required to pay quite a bit more. The average tuition for out-of-state, full-time students is $8,210 annually. This is a bargain, however, compared to the average in-state tuition at public four-year colleges of $9,308, or the even higher costs of attending an out-of-state four-year public institution or a private two- or four-year college.
But again, these numbers vary by state. In California, for example, the average in-state tuition is only $1,310, in large part due to a program allowing many students to attend tuition-free. In contrast, the average annual in-state community college tuition in Vermont is $6,610 (and $13,060 for out-of-state).
Other Costs of Attending a Community College
Many people often overlook the other costs of attending community college beyond tuition expenses. These costs include:
- Textbooks and school supplies: The average annual expenditure for books and supplies at public two-year schools is $1,585. (This is comparable to what you might spend at other schools, as well). This includes the cost of textbooks, notebooks, a laptop, paper, pencils and anything else you need to complete your schoolwork.
- Transportation: The cost of transportation depends on where you live and how you get around. If you need to drive a car to get to campus every day, you will need to budget for gas, maintenance and car payments, as well as possibly needed to pay for parking. If you use public transportation, you will need to pay for bus or train passes. But if you’re within walking distance, your transportation budget can remain quite low.
- Living expenses: While you attend school, you will need a place to live, food to eat and so on. If you still live at home with your parents, this expense might be quite low for you; however, if you live on your own, you have rent, bills and groceries to budget for.
- Other costs: Other expenses that people might not consider include lost income due to not being able to work during the hours you attend class and study, as well as costs associated with taking out student loans.
In total, the average annual cost of community college attendance nationwide, including tuition and all other expenses, is estimated to be around $10,300. Many students receive help for covering these expenses from financial aid, including grants, scholarships, student loans and work-study. This money can not only help with tuition expenses but also the cost of textbooks, supplies and living expenses.
To apply for federal student aid, you will need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and for other scholarship and grant opportunities, you will need to do some searching to find ones you might qualify for.
Is Community College Free?
In most cases and in most places, community college is not free. Some students are lucky enough to qualify for enough grants and scholarships to cover their expenses, making it essentially free for them, but many others will need to pay out of pocket or take out student loans that must be paid back later.
However, in recent years, there has been a trend toward offering free community college programs in some states. The exact requirements for these programs varies, but each is described in the next section.
U.S. States With Free Community College Programs
Each of the following 17 states offers free community college for those who qualify:
- Arkansas: You must have graduated from an in-state public, private or home school, or verify that you have resided within the state for three years before applying and have a high school diploma or equivalent. You must additionally be enrolled in a program of study leading to an associate degree or a certificate in a high-demand STEM field.
- California: First-time, full-time community college students taking at least 12 credits per semester who have graduated from a California high school are eligible to receive two academic years of college tuition in the state.
- Delaware: Delaware residents who maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher and have no felony convictions can attend any public community college in the state tuition-free.
- Hawaii: So long as resident students take at least six credits per semester and maintain standards of academic progress, they are eligible for the Hawaii Promise Program that covers tuition, fees, books, supplies and transportation.
- Indiana: Students enrolled in 7th or 8th grade at Indiana public schools or private schools are eligible for up to four years of tuition at any public college in the state as long as they maintain certain academic requirements; however, low-income limits apply.
- Kentucky: Kentucky students pursuing degrees or certificates in certain fields, such as health care, manufacturing, transportation, business and construction, are eligible for free tuition.
- Maryland: Eligible students with a GPA of at least 2.3 who pursue a degree-granting program may qualify for free community college tuition if they are below a certain income threshold.
- Minnesota: MnSCU now offers a two-year occupational grant pilot program, which covers tuition and fees for up to 72 semester credits for resident students who attend certain programs immediately after high school graduation or GED completion.
- Missouri: Residents who attend certain designated A+ schools are eligible for need-based grants, which may cover their tuition.
- Montana: Students who have earned at least a 2.5 GPA in high school are eligible to apply for the Montana Promise Grant Program, which covers the expenses of those enrolled at least half-time at a tribal or public two-year college who maintain academic progress and meet certain minimum standards.
- Nevada: Students may attend any of the four Nevada community colleges for free, provided they meet certain eligibility requirements, which include community service.
- New York: New York offers the Excelsior Scholarship for students whose families earn $125,00 or less per year, which covers tuition at all two- and four-year CUNY or SUNY schools, provided students take at least 30 credits per calendar year.
- Oklahoma: Residents enrolled in 8th, 9th or 10th grade who complete certain high school coursework requirements and whose household adjusted gross income is below $55,000 may qualify for scholarships that cover college tuition.
- Oregon: The Oregon Promise Grant covers community college tuition costs for those with at least a 2.5 high school GPA who meet certain income requirements.
- Rhode Island: Rhode Island high school graduates who maintain a 2.5 GPA and earn at least 30 credits per year may receive free community college tuition for two years.
- Tennessee: Residents who maintain at least a 2.0 GPA while attending an in-state community college may be eligible for free tuition and fees.
- Washington: The state’s College Bound Scholarship Program covers tuition and fees at eligible in-state schools for students whose families meet certain income requirements and apply while students are in 7th or 8th grade.
Note that many of the programs listed above are “last-dollar scholarship” programs that require students to first complete and submit a FAFSA and then accept any federal Pell Grant monies first before the remainder of their tuition is covered by the program. For Pell Grant qualifying students, much of their tuition and fees may be covered by the Pell Grant itself. These programs may also come with mentoring or other opportunities.
Many states also offer dual enrollment programs that enable high school students to take community college courses or earn community college credits before graduating high school. These students are generally able to attend for free while they are still in high school if they are part of such a program.
Learn More About College Costs at CollegeFinance.com
Whether free community college is available in your area, CollegeFinance.com offers many resources for students regarding financial topics, student loans, financing and more. Check out the saving for college page to learn how to prepare for the expense of higher education.