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College Promise Programs: What You Need to Know

You may have heard the term "college promise program" – and it might have been followed by the exciting words, "free college!" According to the College Promise Campaign, more than 40 states now offer some form of these programs, which provide free or debt-free tuition to students who meet certain criteria. So, what does a student have to do to qualify? And what’s in the fine print?

If you live in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, or Washington, you may be especially in luck, since each of these states offers two years of tuition-free community college to qualifying high school graduates. Not all programs are created equal, however, and many don’t guarantee tuition will be completely free; each state has distinct benefits, requirements, and specifications. For now, we’ll walk you through the basics – and, as always, our expert college planning guides are here to help.

About 65% of local Promise Programs (PP's) offer free tuition only at community colleges, but others support students at either 2 or 4-year institutions. These programs also often require that students qualify as low- or middle-income, enroll full time in college and/or be recent high school graduates, and meet a minimum GPA. In states like Arkansas, New York, and Rhode Island, students who benefit from the program are required to live and work in that state for a set amount of time after graduation.

Promise programs use special terminology to describe how much of a student’s tuition can be covered by the program. Let’s break it down:

  • First-dollar: In a first-dollar PP, the state covers the cost of tuition and fees regardless of other aid the student might receive. The student is then free to use money from additional grants for other school-related expenses, like transportation, housing, or books.
  • Last-dollar: A last-dollar PP covers only what is left of a student’s tuition after she applies federal Pell grants and other grant aid. About 75% of promise programs fall under this category.
  • Middle-dollar: Middle-dollar PP's function like last-dollar programs, but they guarantee a student at least $1,000 of support. If a student’s other grant aid covers tuition, she can use the extra money to pay for other school-related expenses.

When exploring promise programs, keep these points in mind:

  • Each promise program has specific policies regarding how a student can use scholarship money that was awarded by a private source (a source other than the government). Be sure to do your research to make the most of your awards!
  • Many states are beginning to offer PP's only for students who are interested in pursuing specific occupations in demand in that state. For example, Minnesota offers PP's for students who plan to work in nursing or accounting.
  • Some PP's, like California’s, do not cover all 2 years (at a community college) or 4 years (at a larger public institution). Make sure you consider just how much money you could save through a promise program if it will not cover all your time in college.
  • PP's in Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee require students to complete community service or mentoring work throughout their time in the program.
  • Since most PP's only offer tuition at community colleges, some high-achieving students may be tempted to enroll in a promise-eligible school when they could have been admitted to a more selective 4-year institution. Remember to keep your options open when applying, and don’t rule out a type of school until you compare award letters with concrete numbers that apply to you and your financial circumstances.

Not sure where to head after high school? We’ve got some insight that might help you make the choice. If you think community college might be your next step, check out this guide to be sure you make the most of your decision.