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It’s no secret that college can be expensive. Rising tuition fees have made it difficult for many students to earn a traditional four-year degree. But what if you could go to school and earn credits for a fraction of the cost, or at no cost at all? This may be possible with community colleges.
In some states, students can attend community college at no cost. But even where free community colleges aren’t available, students can attend two-year schools to earn college credit for far less than they would pay at four-year schools.
Are community colleges free?
Previously, President Joe Biden proposed making community colleges free across the country. In fact, free community college tuition was included in earlier versions of the Build Back Better plan before it was later removed.
Despite this setback, a number of states instituted free tuition in two-year schools for some students. But even for those who don’t qualify or live in a state that doesn’t offer this benefit, community college can be a cost-effective option. Particularly if you attend a district school, i.e. a local college in your state, the costs can be quite low.
The average cost of community college tuition in the district was $3,800 in 2021, according to the College Board’s College Fee Trends Report. That’s significantly less than public or private four-year school tuition, which averaged $10,740 and $38,070 in 2021, respectively.
Your total cost of attending community college can vary depending on your needs. For example, if you live with your family and commute to school, your costs may be significantly lower than if you lived on campus or rented an apartment nearby.
Which States Have Free Community College?
Although community colleges are not free nationwide, several states have instituted their own programs that make community colleges free for students.
Eligibility requirements vary by state, but they generally offer free tuition to students who have lived and attended high school in the state. Some states limit free tuition to students studying certain majors, such as science or engineering, or who live in low-income households. In other states, free tuition at community colleges is available to everyone.
While these programs may tout free community colleges, keep in mind that the term generally only refers to tuition and compulsory school fees. Generally, you are still responsible for covering your other expenses, such as room and board or transportation.
As of August 2022, about half of US states offer free community college to students in one form or another, including:
- New Jersey
- New York
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
You can find out if your state offers free community college — and what its program specifics are — by contacting your public education agency or researching free tuition scholarships and “pledge programs” in your state.
What do community colleges offer?
Community colleges—sometimes called junior colleges or two-year schools—are less popular today than they were in the past. In 2020, only 6.2 million students were enrolled in a two-year school, compared to 7.9 million in 2010.
But with the potential for free tuition, students can take a second look at community colleges. If you are planning to attend a community college and wondering what types of programs are available, you can take the following courses at a two-year school:
- Two-year degree: Earn a two-year Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree.
- Certificate programs: Complete a certificate program to help you advance in your career. For example, common certificate programs at community colleges include medical coding, fire science, and event planning.
- Professional training : Community colleges often offer vocational training programs, such as baking and culinary arts.
- University credits: Earn credits that can then be transferred to a four-year college. Sometimes called a “2+2” strategy, you attend community college for two years before transferring to a four-year college to complete your education. This approach allows you to earn a bachelor’s degree for less than attending a four-year school for all four years. Before using this strategy, work closely with your academic advisors to ensure that you are taking the correct courses and that your credits will transfer.
How the FAFSA Works for Community College
A common misconception is that community college students are not eligible for federal financial aid. However, this is not the case. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 56% of community college students receive some form of financial aid.
Typical sources include Pell grants, federal co-op programs, subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans, state grants, or institutional aid.
To ensure you get all the help you are entitled to, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible each year. Also check with your school’s financial aid office to see if there are other aid opportunities, such as scholarships, that you can use for the upcoming semester.
Now that you know that community college tuition is free in some states — and available at low cost elsewhere — you can decide if attending a two-year school is right for you. Whether you want to earn an associate’s degree, complete a certificate program, or eliminate basic credit requirements for your bachelor’s degree program, a community college can help you achieve your goals.
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