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Free tuition offerings continue to evolve in states across the US

September 26, 2019
By: Ellen Marrison

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham became the latest governor to propose a plan for free tuition, with what has been called the “one of the most ambitious attempts to make higher education more accessible.” If approved, the plan would allow in-state students to attend any of the 29 state public colleges or universities, regardless of income. It is designed as a “last-dollar” program. If approved, it would be just the second state to offer full tuition coverage to its residents (New York offers the Excelsior scholarship, which will be fully phased in in 2020), according to New Mexico’s governor.

The New Mexico program would be “an absolute game-changer” for the state, according to the governor, who said in a prepared release that higher education has been a victim of the recession and that by making college more accessible to students in the state, the state would in turn see improved economic growth, improved outcomes for workers and families, and a better trained and better compensated workforce.

While New Mexico’s efforts are still in the proposal stage and Virginia’s governor has announced that he will soon reveal a plan following a tuition for service model that would all residents to attend community colleges and graduate debt-free in exchange for a year spent in a public service job or working in a high-demand field, several other states acted this year to create or expand college tuition programs and those efforts are detailed below.


The state budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom provides support for community college students by funding two years of free community college tuition for first-time, full-time students, by expanding the California College Promise program.  The signed 2019-2020 state budget includes $42.6 million to support a second year of free tuition for approximately 33,000 students. The budget also provides $41.8 million to increase the number of competitive Cal Grant scholarships from 25,750 to 41,000 for income-eligible Californians.


Gov. Ned Lamont signed the FY 2020/2021 budget that includes a plan for debt-free community college beginning in the fall of 2020, which could be funded with proceeds coming from the launch of a new online lottery. It has not yet been determined whether the revenue from on an online lottery would be sufficient to offset the costs of the debt-free community college program. If it is found to not be feasible, the governor is to propose adjustments to the state budget to account for the costs.

New Hampshire

Gov. Chris Sununu signed an agreement earlier this month with the state’s education commissioner and the chancellor of the community college program to set up the New Hampshire Career Academy, a plan that will help students earn high school diplomas and an associate’s degree at the same time, with no additional cost to families or taxpayers. The program is open to New Hampshire high school seniors that enroll in an approved Community College System of New Hampshire (CCSNH) career program of study. The programs will have an identified industry partner that will provide an employment pathway for students, if they desire. The program is to be funded through the state designated student adequacy payments, and it is expected that industry partners will provide additional support.

New Jersey

New Jersey expanded its pilot program of tuition-free community college for certain students to all 19 community colleges, after the success of piloting the Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) in January at 13 county colleges. The FY 2020 state budget includes a total of $30 million in funding for the program, which is a last-dollar grant that covers any gap remaining between students’ tuition and covered educational fees and all other financial aid grants they receive.


In May, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a higher education bill that authorizes the Workforce Education Investment Act, designed to “train Washington students for Washington jobs.” The act guarantees financial aid for more than 110,000 qualified Washington students to attend college for free or at a discounted rate, expands the governor’s Career Connect Washington Initiative and establishes a study-and-work approach enabling students to get work experience and high school or college credit at the same time. The grant program is open to students if they are at or below the state median family income, which is a little under $92,000 for a family of four. It will be funded by businesses that will pay an additional surcharge on the current business and occupation tax that they already pay.

West Virginia

West Virginia’s legislature approved a plan to increase access to career education and workforce training through the WV Invests Grants program, a last-dollar financial aid program designed to cover the cost of basic tuition and fees for certificate or associate degree programs at a participating two or four-year institution in the state. Priority is given to programs in specific high-demand fields, such as information technology or healthcare. Part of the qualifications for the grant include students paying for and passing a drug screening test before the start of each academic term they are receiving an award. West Virginia is the first state to implement such a requirement. 

California, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Virginia, Washington, West Virginiafree tuition, higher ed, community college, policy, state budgets