Associates degrees are some of the highest return-on-investment degrees out there. And some are even free!
For over a decade some states have offered free community college tuition to residents of the same state or district. This is often seen as a great investment in much-needed fields that are primarily taught at the associates level. Many of these fields are quite lucrative for the amount of time spent in school. And have great returns on investment even for paid associates degree programs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics high school graduates with no college earn an average of $718 a week. For graduates of associates degree programs or those that hold “some college” this number jumps to $799 per week or a salary of $41,548 a year. With a national average salary of $37,040, community colleges hold some of the most direct paths to higher than average salaries in America. Some of the highest-earning fields requiring only an associates degree include:
Highest Earning Positions Requiring Associates Degrees / Average Salary
- Air Traffic Controller / $122,410
- Radiation Therapist / $80,160
- Nuclear Technician / $79,140
- Some Computer Programming Positions / $79,840
- Nuclear Medicine Technologist / $74,350
- Dental Hygienist / $72,910
- Registered Nurse / $68,450
- Web Developer / $66,130
- Medical Sonographer / $64,280
- Electronic Engineering Technician / $62,180
- Police Officer / $61,600
- Avionics Technician / $60,270
- Radiological Technician / $58,960
- Respiratory Therapist / $58,670
- Telecom Installer / $53,640
- Funeral Service Worker / $54,830
- Drafter / $53,480
- Computer Network Specialist / $52,160
- Paralegal / $49,500
- HVAC Technician / $45,190
And while some of those salaries should be enough to see the reason for attending community college, what if you told you that in many states you can go for free? In an era in which higher education costs have largely outpaced almost every other type of expense, this is an amazing opportunity. An opportunity not only to increase your opportunities, but to increase your potential, expand your mind, and work on yourself and your future for the next two years of your life.
“First Dollar” vs “Last Dollar” Scholarships and Grants
While the scholarships and grants listed below are all great resources, there is one crucial difference between these opportunities: some are “first dollar” and some are “last dollar” sources of money. To explain the difference, let’s just say that you need full funding to go to college. In other words, you have no expendable income with which to attend school. At this point, your college fund is like an empty cup. When the cup is full, you’ve figured out your college funding sources and you can pay for school.
In this scenario, a “first dollar” scholarship or grant may be applied when your “cup” is entirely empty. One of these resources may be poured into the cup first and will continue pouring until the cup is full. This means that even if you have other sources of money, you may use a “first dollar” scholarship to pay the entirety of your bill. This is useful when your other forms of funding have stipulations attached to them. Perhaps they’re student loans that need to be repaid once you graduate, or perhaps it’s a funding source that requires you to stick to a certain major, work a certain job, or not leave a state. A “first dollar” funding source can allow you to avoid stipulations that might be attached to other funding sources.
Similarly, a “last dollar” funding source will make sure that you are entirely funded to go to school. In our “cup” scenario, however, a “last dollar” funding source requires that you apply for state, federal, and school scholarship money first, apply those to your bill first, and then apply the “last dollar” funding source, well, last. This means that a “last dollar” funding source takes care of the gap between the funding sources you’ve already obtained and the total cost of attendance.
Below you’ll find both first and last dollar funding sources, though, in the end, they are all great opportunities for lowering or completely getting rid of costs attached to attending a community college. Happy learning!
States offering Free Tuition For Community Colleges
Currently, there are 11 states that offer free community college tuition under some circumstances. With the average costs of community colleges for 2017-2018 clocking in at $4,868 per year for in-state students and $8,614 for out-of-state students, this is a large savings over a two-year degree. Additional savings are available by taking courses online. Online courses allow students the greatest flexibility allowing students to work on courses when they have free time and avoid commutes. For many students who are working full time or have additional obligations such as family, online community college courses can be a great fit.
While it’s great news that more and more community colleges are being offered for free to local students, there are a variety of stipulations depending on the state. Check out our guide on how to qualify for free community college tuition by state below.
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Tennessee
Tennessee has been the model for many states in adopting “last-dollar” funding for community colleges. This form of community college funding covers all remaining tuition and fees for students once they have exhausted all other Federal and State aid applied to their community college tuition. Applicants must have graduated from a Tennessee high school and be below the age of 19 when starting their community college schooling. Additionally, students that obtain this offer must pursue schooling full-time, not drop below a 2.0 GPA, and engage in 8+ hours of community service every semester.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in TN: 66
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in California
The California Promise program — initially signed into law in 2017 — enables in-state students enrolled at community colleges throughout the state to obtain a tuition voucher for one year of schooling. This offer is available to all in-state community college students who are attending college for the first time and are full time, regardless of financial need. California’s program is known as a “first dollar” program, in that the voucher is applied before any other aid or loans. This allows students with additional awards to use these awards for textbooks, transportation, and other expenses.
- Community College offering online courses in CA: 122
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Oregon
The Oregon Promise program is one of the older free education at community college programs in the nation, originally instituted in 2016. This “free” tuition program is available to Oregonian students whose expected family contribution is less than $20,000 according to the FAFSA. For students meeting this requirement, tuition is entirely free for the duration of a two-year public college degree. Additional requirements include being a recent Oregon high school graduate or GED recipient as well as maintaining a 2.5 or higher GPA in high school.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in OR: 22
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Nevada
The newly instituted Nevada Promise program offers free public two-year college tuition to qualifying students. To qualify, students must submit a FAFSA and an application for the Nevada Promise program. Successful applicants must be under the age of 20, work with mentors through their community college program, and complete 20 hours of community service. Nevada’s promise program is a “last dollar” program
- Community Colleges offering online courses in NV: 6
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Montana
Instituted in 2017 – the Nevada Promise Grant program is a “last dollar” grant for qualifying community college students. Students must be residents of the state of Montana and must have held a 2.5 GPA or higher in their high school studies. Donations from private industry may be gifted directly to the program.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in MT: 14
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Minnesota
Minnesota has implemented a pilot program providing full tuition after Pell Grant amounts have been applied for up to 72 credit hours (more than a traditional community college program). Grants are available to students whose families make less than $90,000 a year, who have either just completed an Americorps program, just received a GED in Minnesota, or just graduated from a Minnesota high school.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in MN: 40
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Arkansas
ArFuture is a “last dollar” grant available for some fields of study in Arkansas-based public community colleges. In the case of ArFuture, the grant may be received by a student who has lived in Arkansas for at least the last three years, and who is in a 2-year program in the STEM subjects or in a regional high demand field. As this is a last dollar grant, it is applied to educational expenses after applicable state, federal, and private aid has been applied.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in AR: 24
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Kentucky
The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship grants aid to eligible community college students for up to 32 credit hours of their community college educational costs (around half of a degree). To be eligible students must be accepted into an approved high-demand field in a certification or degree program, must be a Kentucky resident, and must not have completed greater than an associates-level degree in the past. This is a “last dollar” scholarship that applies to the remaining amount of tuition after all applicable state aid, federal aid, and scholarships have been applied.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in KY: 16
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in New York
Starting in the 2017-18 school year, New York has perhaps the most far-reaching free undergraduate tuition offer of any state. The Excelsior Scholarship is available to all New York residents attending 2 or 4-year degree programs at CUNY or SUNY campuses and whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. This is a “last dollar” scholarship meaning that it is applied after other state, federal, and scholarship aid. Though it may be applied up to the total cost of attendance at 2 or 4-year institutions. Besides keeping up a solid GPA, recipients must stay and work in the state of New York for as many years as they received the scholarship after graduation, or pay off their award as debt.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in NY: 46
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Delaware
Delaware’s SEED — Student Excellence Equals Degree — allows graduating Delaware high school students the ability to attend Delaware Tech or the associates of arts degree program at the University of Delaware entirely free. The scholarship lasts for two years and simply requires that undergraduates keep their grades above a 2.5 GPA, they have no felony record, they attend college directly after high school, and they attend as a full-time student. This is a “last dollar” scholarship that is applied after state, federal, and scholarship money. It may not be used to pay for fees or books.
- Community Colleges offering online courses in DE: 1
How to Obtain a Free Community College Education in Rhode Island
The Rhode Island Promise program is one of the earliest of its type, being signed into law in 2007. In 2017, the law was revamped not only to apply to community colleges (public) in Rhode Island but also to the first two years of bachelor’s degrees at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College. Yes, eligible students can attend the first two years of their bachelor’s degree for free regardless of income in Rhode Island. Eligibility hinges on students being Rhode Island residents and their attendance full time at one of the listed universities or colleges. This is a “last dollar” scholarship that is applied after state, federal, and scholarship funds to meet the remaining full tuition and fees of listed programs.