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Tuition-free college is now a reality in nearly 20 states

Key Points
  • More states are adopting scholarship programs to increase the number of students attending college.
  • For some high school students, the possibility of free tuition is paving the way to a degree.
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Students can go to college for free in 20 states

Over the last decade, the average tuition and fees at private four-year schools rose 26 percent. It's even worse at four-year public schools, where it has jumped 35 percent during that period. Yet for many prospective students, free college is becoming a reality, as more states adopt scholarship programs to increase enrollment and accessibility.

These so-called promise programs typically offer college students two years of free tuition at participating state community colleges or other associate-degree programs and vocational schools. Most are what's known as "last dollar" scholarships, meaning the program pays for whatever tuition is left after financial aid and grants.

Eleven states — Oregon, Nevada, Arkansas, New Jersey, Maryland, Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, Kentucky, and Indiana — already have these programs in place and nine more are working on legislation to do so.

In 2017, New York's Excelsior Scholarship became the first in the nation to cover four years of tuition without being tethered to academic performance.

The scholarship applies to all schools at the City University of New York and State University of New York. New York says more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify when the program completes its three-year phase-in in 2020.

To be eligible for the Excelsior scholarship, students need to:
• Be New York state residents.
• Attend a SUNY or CUNY two- or four-year program.
• Take 30 credits per calendar year (including January and summer sessions).
• Plan to live and work in New York following graduation for at least as long as the time they participate in the scholarship program.

The program does not cover the cost of books or room and board. Critics of the initiative also warn that diverting funds toward free tuition could come at the expense of other operations on campus, including hiring and retaining faculty and administrators.

While promise programs such as these are not perfect, they are giving capable students who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford college the opportunity to pursue a higher education.

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