While some community colleges in the United States offer free tuition, the vast majority are not free. As of 2022, 20 states provide tuition-free community college, meaning that if you live in the state and meet certain requirements, you can attend classes free of charge but will be responsible for other costs, like housing, books, and transportation.
Let’s take a closer look at the cost of attending community college, the states that offer free tuition, and other ways you can pay for your education.
Community college is generally considered to be more affordable than a four-year college or university, but that's especially true if you attend as an in-district student. In 2021, in-district students paid an average of $3,800 in tuition and fees to attend community college, whereas in-state students at a public four-year school paid $10,740 .
However, tuition and fees are just one factor when attending community college. Full-time students at public community colleges typically need to cover an estimated $8,670 in food and housing and $5,700 for books and supplies, transportation, and other personal living expenses, according to the College Board .
Tuition can also vary by state and college. For example, during the 2021-2022 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees in California was $1,430 while in Vermont it was $8,600 . Community college costs can grow even higher if you attend as an out-of-district or out-of-state student.
Need some help understanding the potential cost of earning your associate or bachelor’s degree at a community college? Many community colleges offer a free net price calculator. Search for the name of your potential school and “tuition calculator” to learn more. Though it’s a rough estimate, a net price calculator can be beneficial as you try to get a clear picture of the true cost of attendance.
States that provide tuition-free community college do so in one of two ways, through first-dollar or last-dollar programs. First-dollar programs tend to cover the full tuition amount without considering any other financial aid you may receive. Thanks to that structure, it’s known to reduce overall costs because, with your tuition paid for, you can put any additional financial aid you receive toward other educational costs. Last-dollar programs are meant to fill any gaps, so they take into account any aid you receive. If that aid doesn’t cover the cost of your tuition, the program pays the difference.
As of 2022, there are 20 states in the US that offer tuition-free community college through either a first-dollar or last-dollar program. These include:
While most states require recipients to be residents, some also make additional stipulations, such as specifying the subject matter you can earn your degree in, necessitating community service, and requiring that graduates work in the state for a set number of years after completing their degree program.
As you weigh the benefits of tuition-free community college, it’s important to take these potential conditions under consideration in order to determine the best path forward for you. For example, graduating without much (if any) student debt may be beneficial. But if there are higher salaries in your line of work outside your state, you may earn a lower potential income until you fulfill the obligations of your financial aid program and can pursue roles elsewhere.
Whether you live in a state that offers tuition-free community college or not, there are a number of additional options as you think about ways to finance your education.
The Financial Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form you submit each year you plan to attend college. Completing the FAFSA helps the US Department of Education understand your finances and determine whether you qualify for grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and more. It also shares your information with the college you plan on attending, so that they may consider you for specific school-wide grants and scholarships.
Submitting your FAFSA may help you qualify for the Federal Work-Study program, which guarantees employment for students while they’re working on their degree. The program tends to place students on-campus or at a participating site near campus, and pays a minimum of $12 an hour. You can remain enrolled in the program as long as you’re making satisfactory progress toward your degree.
Working while you’re in school can help offset some attendance costs. In fact, many community college students work while earning their degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 35.1 percent of students worked part-time and 31.5 percent worked full-time in 2021 . Plus, community college classes tend to offer more flexible scheduling, such as night or weekend classes, to accommodate working students.
Taking out student loans should be a last resort, after you’ve explored all other options. It’s generally recommended to explore federal loans first because they tend to offer lower interest rates and perks like income-driven repayment plans . Once you’ve explored your federal student loan options, you can look into private student loans, but it’s recommended that you compare several lenders to secure a competitive interest rate. It’s also worth noting that private lenders do not offer income-based plans or loan forgiveness.
Learn more: Jobs to Pay for College
There are other options aside from community college to help you gain an education or launch your career. Consider these alternative options that may be available in your state.
Whether you want to earn your two-year degree or your four-year degree, there are a number of options available online. As with community colleges, online colleges tend to cost less and offer more flexible scheduling. The demand for online learning continues to rise, which means many renowned institutions now offer degree programs online, so you can earn your degree from a top-notch school without having to relocate.
If you know what career you’d like to pursue, you may want to explore technical or trade schools. These schools offer degrees or certifications that take up to two years to complete and prepare you for immediate entry into your field of work. They also tend to be less expensive than four-year institutions.
Technical schools offer associate degrees and certifications with the intention of entering into a technical job field, such as fire safety, criminal justice, medical office administration, and electrical systems technology.
Trade schools tend to be more “hands on,” teaching students how to perform specific tasks required in a variety of trades, such as electrician, auto mechanic, or medical assistant.
An apprenticeship typically involves finding a professional to shadow while they provide training in real-time. There are apprenticeships available in many industries, including energy, telecom, transportation, and health care. In the US, there are over 636,000 apprentices and they earn an average starting salary of $72,000 after completing their training [4,5].
As the demand for skilled labor in certain sectors, like tech, finance, and business, continues to increase, a professional certificate can help you gain job-ready skills to enter a new line of work—or grow in your current role. Many certificate programs are designed to take less than a year, and can strengthen your resume, showing employers you’ve received specialized training.
Learn more: 15+ High-Paying Jobs that Don’t Require a Degree
If a structured in-person community college setting doesn’t work for you, you may enjoy the flexibility of learning online. You can find both degree options and professional certificates on Coursera. Check out the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences from the University of North Texas, which takes 120 credit hours to complete at an average pace of 10-15 hours a week. Or you can begin working on a professional certificate in in-demand fields like computer science or IT, data science, and business.
1. College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf." Accessed February 17, 2022
2. National Center for Education Statistics. “Work While Enrolled, https://nces.ed.gov/datalab/table/library/detail/13212." Accessed February 17, 2022.
3. US Department of Education. “Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) Plan Request, https://studentaid.gov/app/ibrInstructions.action." Accessed February 16, 2022.
4. US Department of Labor. “Apprenticeship: Data and Statistics, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/eta/apprenticeship/about/statistics/2020." Accessed February 17, 2022.
5. US Department of Labor. “Apprenticeship.gov, https://www.apprenticeship.gov/." Accessed February 17, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.