CREDIT: FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAY
The campus of Cal State Long Beach.

More than 1.3 million low- and middle-income students attend California’s public colleges and universities each year without having to pay tuition, thanks to financial aid programs in each of the state’s higher education systems that cover those bills.

A California law that allows for a free first year of tuition at the state’s community colleges made headlines in 2017.

But close to half of students at the 114 California Community Colleges already attended tuition-free before the law was signed. At four-year universities, about 60 percent of students in the 23 campus California State University system, and the same share of in-state undergraduates in the 10-campus University of California system, attend tuition-free as well.

The new law, AB19, allows for community colleges to cover tuition for all students, regardless of income. Its impact is uncertain, though — each community college will decide whether to use the money they receive under the law for that purpose.

What does ‘free tuition’ mean?

UC, CSU and the community colleges each pledge to cover the cost of tuition for students who meet certain eligibility standards, typically based on income. Tuition in the Community College system is $46 per unit, so a student taking a full-time load of 12 credits per semester would have to pay $1,104 if they did not get any aid. At CSU, tuition runs $5,742 per year for a California resident attending full-time. And at UC, in-state undergraduate tuition and mandatory fees are $12,630.

How do I apply for free tuition?

The first step to receive tuition aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or, for undocumented students, a California Dream Act application each year. The free-tuition initiatives at UC, CSU and the community colleges use information from those forms to automatically determine students’ eligibility, so students don’t need to fill out a separate application for the programs.

How do free-tuition programs relate to state and federal financial aid?

Although they aren’t billed as “free-tuition” initiatives, and they may not cover all of students’ tuition costs, Cal Grants from the state and Pell Grants from the federal government are the main financial aid programs that help students afford higher education in California.

At four-year public universities, more students receive Pell and Cal grants than benefit from the free-tuition programs detailed in this article.

Cal Grants, which provided $1.9 billion worth of aid to 329,000 students at public and private colleges in the 2016-17 school year, are among the most generous state financial aid programs in the country. Students’ eligibility and the size of their awards are linked to students’ family income and assets. Learn more about Cal Grants here.

Pell Grants from the federal government provided grants of up to $5,920 in the 2017-18 school year.

At the California Community Colleges, the most common form of aid that covers tuition costs is the College Promise Grant, formerly known as the Board of Governors Fee Waiver (see below for more details). Students at the community colleges can also receive Cal Grants and Pell Grants to cover other college costs.

Do free-tuition programs pay for other costs, such as student housing?

Free tuition does not equal a free college education. Financial aid programs typically leave students on the hook for other costs that can prove daunting, such as textbooks, food and California’s ever-pricier housing.

Students may be able to use financial aid from other sources, such Pell or Cal grants, to handle non-tuition costs. But rules for doing so vary depending on the program. Students may have to pay out of their own pockets, or take out loans, to cover those costs.

What about my local college’s ‘Promise’ program?

You may have heard about a free-tuition “Promise” program at a college near you. Dozens of cities, school districts and colleges in California have set up College Promise programs that provide grants and support services, such as mentoring and student advising.

While their names are similar to the free-tuition program at the California Community College system, local College Promise initiatives are different.

The system’s College Promise Grant is a state-wide program that waives enrollment fees and is available at all of the community colleges. Local College Promise initiatives are typically tied to a single college, and are more varied. There are 42 such programs across California, each with its own eligibility rules and financial awards, ranging from grants to pledges to cover as many as four years of free tuition.

Learn more about College Promise programs here.

Adding to the confusion, students participating in local College Promise programs are also often eligible to receive a College Promise Grant.

The L.A. College Promise initiative, for instance, offers one year of free tuition in the Los Angeles Community College District to graduates of the city’s public schools, regardless of their income levels. Most of the program’s over 4,000 participants last year already had their tuition bills covered under the College Promise Grant described below. But by participating in L.A. College Promise, they gained access to a range of supplementary services, which include mentoring, academic advising and a summer transition program.

Click the boxes below for a breakdown of statewide programs that are available to cover tuition costs at California’s public colleges and universities, in addition to aid from Cal and Pell grants. 

California Community Colleges

College Promise Grant

Formerly known as the Board of Governors Fee Waiver, this program covered tuition for about 1 million students, or nearly half of the 2.1 million students enrolled in the 114-campus community college system. The average waiver was worth around $800 in the 2016-17 school year.

Who is eligible? To qualify for a fee waiver, you must be a full- or part-time student who falls into one of three categories:

  • Receive public assistance, such as food aid or housing aid;
  • Have income below 150 percent of the federal poverty level;
  • Based on your FAFSA or the Dream Act application, have $1,104 worth of financial need, defined as the difference between the total cost of attending college and your expected family contribution.

The program is open to students of all ages, as well as undocumented students.

To stay eligible, students must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average in half of their classes.

How does it work? The program waives tuition before other scholarships or grants are taken into account. That means students can use other financial aid, such as Pell and Cal grants, to pay for their living expenses.

Does the College Promise Grant program pay for living expenses? Generally, no. The new free-tuition law could change that, however.

What will the new California law that could offer a year of free tuition to all students at some community colleges do? The law (AB19 described above) could start providing free tuition to first-year, full-time students, regardless of their financial need, in the fall of 2018 with $46 million of state funding. To receive that money, colleges will have to provide student support and advising services, similar to those in local College Promise programs.

But colleges aren’t required to use the money they receive under the law to cover tuition for every student. The law requires only that the colleges put the money toward several goals spelled out in the law, such as closing achievement gaps.

Where can I learn more? icanaffordcollege.com

California State University

State University Grant

CSU officials estimate that 60 percent of their nearly 500,000 students pay no tuition thanks to Cal Grants, fee waivers granted to students who fall into certain categories and the State University Grant program.

Go here to see if you fall into one of the categories that might qualify for a fee waiver to cover tuition costs at CSU.

The State University Grant is aimed at students who don’t receive Cal Grants. Many of the program’s beneficiaries are older students who are returning to college after being out of high school for several years, or those who otherwise lost their eligibility for a guaranteed Cal Grant.

About 135,000 CSU students received State University Grants waiving tuition in the 2016-17 school year.

Who is eligible? Students from families making less than $70,000 per year typically receive State University Grants that cover tuition and fees.

Each of the system’s 23 campuses sets its own rules for State University Grants. They generally target the awards to California residents who have expected family contributions of $4,000 or less, and who apply by March 2. Students can still receive aid if they apply after March 2.

The program does not guarantee that every eligible student will receive a grant that covers the full cost of tuition and fees, because the need for the grants outstrips available funding at some campuses.

State University Grants are available for California resident undergraduates and graduate students. Undocumented students and students who meet criteria under AB540 — a law that allows certain non-residents to pay in-state tuition — are eligible as well.

How does it work? The State University Grant covers tuition outright. Other forms of financial aid such as Pell Grants can then be used to pay other college costs.

Does the program pay for living expenses? The maximum State University Grant award at most campuses is capped at the cost of tuition and fees.

Where can I learn more? Visit CSU’s State University Grant webpage.

University of California

Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan

In the 2016-17 school year, 104,000 UC undergraduates — 58 percent of in-state undergraduates — paid no tuition.

The vast majority of those students had their tuition covered by Pell Grants, Cal Grants and other financial aid. For eligible low- and middle-income students who still had tuition costs remaining after those forms of financial aid, the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan provides an extra award to cover the gap.

Who is eligible? California resident undergraduates from families with incomes below $80,000 per year who demonstrate financial need through FAFSA.

Students who are exempt from nonresident tuition are eligible, as are undocumented students and students of all ages, though they must be in their first four years as a UC undergraduate or their first two years as transfer students.

Students must submit a FAFSA or a Dream Act application, as well as a Cal Grant GPA Verification Form, by March 2. They must also be enrolled at UC at least half-time.

How does it work? The plan pledges to cover any difference between the total cost of tuition and what students’ other financial aid awards, such as Pell and Cal Grants, provide. Because it takes that aid into account, students at UC may not be able to use money from other grants and scholarships to pay for their living expenses.

Does the program pay for living expenses? It depends. UC’s financial aid system takes the full cost of attendance — both tuition and living expenses — into account when determining how much aid students receive, so those with greater need can receive aid to cover some expenses. The average grant aid awarded to California students in 2016-17 was $17,000, more than $4,000 above the cost of tuition and fees.

Where can I learn more? Visit UC’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan webpage.

Share Article

Comments (1)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Kevin hagberg 4 months ago4 months ago

    I’m 60 yerars old I am a numbers guy. I have paid over $1.2 million in state taxes in my career. Free tuition? You better promote it. I got screwed and I have to pay for complete strangers’ education.
    I’m leaving g California. Moving to Reno Nevada. Saving $32k in state taxes this year. I love it here but the politicians pushed me out. Bye bye!!!!