Question of the Month: Do any states have programs in place to provide free tuition to students attending community college?

The idea of providing tuition-free community college got a major boost in early 2015, when President Barack Obama included it in his State of the Union speech. The America’s College Promise Actwas subsequently introduced this past summer in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. If signed into law, the act would create a new state-federal partnership to waive student tuition and fees at community colleges, with the federal government providing $3 for every $1 invested by a state.

As of late 2015, the legislation had not passed out of any congressional committees. A handful of U.S. states, meanwhile, moved ahead with tuition-free plans of their own in 2015, including Minnesota with passage of SB 5. Under a new pilot initiative, which takes effect July 1, the state will begin providing last-dollar scholarships to students enrolled in high-demand occupational programs, as determined by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. A last-dollar scholarship covers any student tuition and fees not paid for by other federal and state grants. (In contrast America’s College Promise Act would offer first-dollar scholarships.)


Under the Minnesota initiative, in-state residents with incomes of $90,000 or less will be eligible for assistance. Students in the program must also participate in free mentoring services. In September 2015, the White House highlighted the new Minnesota law as part of a national study examining state and local tuition-free programs and proposals. Along with Minnesota, the White House study notes, Oregon and Tennessee have launched statewide, last-dollar scholarship programs. Oregon’s SB 81, signed into law in 2015, appropriates $10 million a year and is expected to provide assistance to up to 6,000 students; to remain eligible for free tuition, in-state Oregon residents must maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5. The Tennessee Promise program provides students with free tuition and fees for two years at a community college or a college of applied technology. Created in 2014 with the passage of HB 2491, the program got 58,000 applicants in its first year. Students must maintain a GPA of 2.0 to continue receiving Tennessee Promise scholarships. In the Midwest, tuition-free proposals were introduced in at least three other state legislatures in 2015. Indiana’s SB 513 and Illinois’ SB 2146are modeled after the Tennessee Promise program. North Dakota’s HB 1452 would provide grants to students who maintain a GPA of 3.0 and who attend any accredited higher-education institution in the state. Under the proposal, the state would cover 65 percent of a student’s tuition during the 2016-17 school year. That percentage would gradually increase in future years of the program and would reach 100 percent by the 2023-24 school year. At the local level, 13 different programs are now in place in the Midwest to provide free community college tuition (see map).

Stateline Midwest: January 20161.74 MB