Quick Guide: Tuition-free college in California

June 20, 2018

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. 

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