Is Community College Free in California?

portrait of Nalea Ko
by Nalea Ko
Published on November 16, 2021

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Headlines can be misleading at times. Case in point: when lawmakers approved the California College Promise program in 2017, it was touted as "free college." Assembly Bill 19 (AB 19) pumped $46 million into 114 California community colleges.

However, not all of the California Promise funding goes toward paying students' tuition. In fact, the schools decide how they want to allocate these funds. They may think the money is better spent elsewhere, such as building up student support services.

Some 2.1 million students attend two-year schools in the Golden State, according to the California Community Colleges. One million California community college students do not pay for their tuition, primarily because of fee waivers.

Going to community college can benefit students who want to save money on college, earn an associate degree, or complete general education requirements before transferring to a four-year school.

Learn more about who qualifies for free community college in California.

Who Qualifies for Free Community College in California?

California passed "free community college in California" to provide greater access to higher education for vulnerable communities such as low-income students, veterans, people of color, and first-generation students.

AB 19 aims to increase college preparedness among high school students, boost the number of students who transfer to California State University or the University of California, and help more students gain college credit.

College promise programs exist throughout the nation. One of the best-known college promise programs, Michigan's Kalamazoo Promise, began in 2005.

The California College Promise program, which is funded by the state, pays the tuition fees of students who meet certain requirements. If approved, students can receive waivers and/or grants.

California College Promise Program

The California College Promise program allows California Community Colleges (CCC) to provide free tuition —but only to students who qualify. The California College Promise program requires students to reapply every academic year. Not all California community colleges offer the program, which is administered by the chancellor of the CCC.

Qualifying students receive funding for 12 months. However, only certain majors may be eligible for the program. Other eligibility standards may also apply. These include being:

To stay in the program, students may also need to create an enrollment plan, complete a certain number of credits in an academic year, and regularly meet with advisors.

Community colleges may have more restrictions for the California College Promise program. Fee waivers must be approved before the end of the semester to receive aid.

California College Promise Grant

Eligible California residents can get tuition fee waivers under the California College Promise Grant —if they meet qualifications and maintain eligibility. The California College Promise Grant waives up to $46 per unit in enrollment fees.

Candidates can qualify for the grant after submitting proof of their finances. Dependent students may qualify if their parents meet the financial-need requirement. Applicants submit income verification when they complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

California residents or nonresidents under the California Dream Act may be eligible for the California College Promise Grant if they:

How to Apply for Free Community College in California

You need to be a California resident to receive "free" community college or qualify for an exemption. California resident youths who are homeless and those who have nonresident tuition fees under Assembly Bill 540, such as undocumented students, may be eligible for tuition waivers. Most waivers may be processed in one week.

Students qualify for California residency status by maintaining a continuous physical presence in the state for more than one year, or at least 366 days. They also must intend to live in the state and not simply want to attend college in California.

Applying for the California College Promise Program

First-time students, who met the requirements and received California College Promise funds, may reapply the following year. They must maintain their full-time status. Each state community college has its own criteria on how to use funds from the program.

Applying for the California College Promise Grant

The California College Promise Grant and the California Promise program operate separately. Students can apply through CCCApply or download the application for the California College Promise Grant.

Frequently Asked Questions About Free Community College in California

Are all community colleges free in California?

No. If you meet income standards and other requirements, community college can be tuition-free. However, not all community colleges take part in the California College Promise program, and not all students qualify for waivers and grants. Some 105 colleges in the 2018-2019 academic year received AB 19 funds, and 65 of these schools gave college promise aid to students.

Is it worth it to go to community college?

When you consider cost and accessibility, community colleges offer many benefits. Community colleges can provide students with a cheaper and more flexible pathway to higher education compared to a four-year college. Community college may offer more support for students who struggled with classwork in high school. Many community college graduates may go directly to the workforce. Others may decide to continue their education, pursuing a higher degree.

How much does community college cost in California?

For in-state residents taking 12 units at a California community college, the tuition cost is around $550 per semester. Out-of-state students pay more. This does not include other costs, like books and transportation. Waivers and grants are available for students meeting certain requirements.

What are the disadvantages of going to a community college?

A lack of campus life can be one disadvantage. When compared to a four-year university, community colleges do not have the same extracurricular events and social gatherings. Students may also find degree options at community colleges more limited.

Are there any tuition-free colleges?

Yes. Truly tuition-free colleges do exist. Students at these schools may have to meet certain requirements. Tuition-free colleges also may not pay for other college expenses such as books or housing. Some "tuition-free" colleges offer promise programs. Seventeen states provide tuition to students through these programs, including Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Kentucky, and Missouri.

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