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Free community college tuition in California: Who qualifies?

A recently expanded tuition waiver signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom means some students can attend two years of community college tuition-free.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Free tuition for two years at California community colleges, sounds too good to be true.  Well, it’s true that California Governor Gavin Newsom recently expanded a tuition waiver program, the number of students who will benefit depends on who qualifies.  Here's a look at the program.

California College Promise Grant vs California College Promise Program

It can be confusing, but there are two programs that help pay for tuition at community colleges in California that have very similar names but do different things.

The California College Promise Grant pays community college fees of lower-income, California resident and AB 540 eligible students. The grant is available regardless of how many units the student takes.

The California College Promise Program offers two years free tuition for first-time, full-time students in California, who attend community college.

Who is eligible for the Promise Program?

The promise program was recently extended to offer a second year of paid tuition at California community colleges. To qualify students must be:

  • Full-time students
  • California residents or AB 540 students
  • First-time college students

California Community Colleges reports 2.1 million students attend one of 115 community colleges in the state. According to the Governor’s budget summary, 33,000 students are projected to be eligible for the second year of free tuition under the Promise Program. That’s about 1.5 percent of students who attend a community college in California.

The Promise Program pays for two years of community college if a college chooses to waive fees.

Does every California Community College offer the Promise Program?

The short answer is no. According to California Community Colleges, colleges have the option on whether to waive enrollment fees.

According to a post on the CCC website, " Not all colleges receiving Promise money are waiving enrollment fees; many believe their California Promise funding is better used for other purposes, such as strengthening student support services to boost outcomes, or providing grants to help students cover the costs of childcare, transportation, books or other expenses."

So, if you are hoping to get free tuition under the California College Promise Program you might want to check with the college before you enroll.

What the California College Promise Program doesn't cover

It is also worth noting that the tuition waiver under the Promise Program only covers tuition. The money cannot be used to cover costs for other fees, books, housing, or food. There are other grant programs and scholarships that can be used toward those costs.

How much does the California College Promise Program cost the state?

According to the Governor’s budget summary, the expanded program is budgeted at $42.6 million. It is being paid for by the Proposition 98 General Fund. Prop 98 requires a certain percentage of the state budget be spent on K-12 education.

Who is eligible for the California College Promise Grant?

According to California Community Colleges, more than one-million students received this grant last year. There are three basic requirements to qualify for the California College Promise Grant.

  • Attend a California community college.
  • Be a California resident or exempt from non-resident fees under the California Dream Act.
  • Have financial need 

There are three ways to qualify based on financial need: Type A, Type B, or Type C.

  • Type A: You are receiving Temporary Aid For Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI/SSP), or General Assistance.
  • Type B: Meet income standards that are based on federal poverty guidelines. For example, total family income for a family of two would need to be less than $24,690. You can see the full income standards here.
  • Type C: Submit the FAFSA or California Dream Act application (CADAA) and show you still have unmet financial need.

To apply for the California College Promise Grant you first need to apply for the FAFSA or CADAA. Click here for help to get started.


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