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States of Innovation 2017: Free tuition moving into more state toolboxes

October 12, 2017
By: Ellen Marrison

This week we continue our series on state legislation pertaining to the innovation economy that has been enacted this year around the country. This second installment of the States of Innovation 2017 series deals with free tuition.

A number of states took action to increase the education and skills of their workforce by implementing free or greatly reduced tuition programs at either community colleges or state colleges. The move to increase access to higher education while not new, took up increased urgency this year. With Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Tennessee all taking action this past year, Maine and North Carolina were among others considering other options but as of today’s publication not moving the proposals forward.


The Arkansas Future grant program provides tuition and fees for students less the amount received from state-supported scholarships; federal student financial assistance; and private scholarships. Students must be enrolled in qualifying certificate and associate degree programs, including science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or computer science, or other regional high demand fields, and includes schools of nursing within the program. No new revenue was dedicated to the program, and to offset its estimated $8 million annual cost two other programs were abolished, according to the Arkansas News.


The Florida legislature amended the Bright Futures Scholarship Program, increasing the amount of the scholarship for Florida Academic Scholars to cover 100 percent of tuition and applicable fees at a public postsecondary institution, or comparable amount at a nonpublic institution and another $300 for textbooks and educational expenses. Florida Academic Scholars are students who have achieved a 3.5 minimum weighted GPA and meet other state requirements.


Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed an executive order in late December 2016 that took effect in the 2017-2018 school year. The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program awards financial aid to eligible students pursuing a two-year degree (or another industry-recognized credential) in one of Kentucky’s top five high-demand workforce sectors: advanced manufacturing, health care, transportation/logistics, business services/IT, and construction. The program took the place of a broader program that he vetoed, according to the Louisville Courier-Times.

New York

The Excelsior Scholarship program will provide free tuition at state universities. It will be phased in over three years, and began this fall for New Yorkers from families making up to $100,000 annually, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019. Under the Excelsior Scholarship program, students can attend any of the colleges or universities that comprise the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems. After completing their degree, the scholarship requires that recipients must work or live in the state after graduation for the same number of years that they receive support.

North Carolina

Beginning in FY 2018-2019, the budget will authorize the NC Promise Tuition Plan at $11.0 million. This plan will reduce tuition costs for in-state undergraduate students to $500 per semester at Western Carolina University, University of North Carolina Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University. The three institutions are strategically located in different parts of the state and each has a historical mission of providing an accessible education.

Rhode Island

Although not as comprehensive as the governor had originally proposed, the RI Promise is a two-year pilot program providing free tuition for high school graduates and GED recipients pursuing an associate degree at Community College of Rhode Island.


Tennessee created the Tennessee Reconnect program, an expansion of its Tennessee Promise program, establishing a last-dollar scholarship for adults to attend community college tuition free. It is part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” focus, to increase the percentage of the state’s adults equipped with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent; it is currently closer to 30 percent in Tennessee.

Other initiatives have also been introduced earlier this year, including an effort by Gov. Roy Cooper in North Carolina to help make North Carolina a Top 10 Educated state by 2025, titled NC Grow. NC Grow was to be an expansion of an already-existing Career and College Promise program.  Statewide, high school students enrolled in a public school can already take community college classes for free, through a program called N.C. Career & College Promise.  Governor Cooper wanted to expand that to any recent graduate with at least a 2.0 high school GPA, starting in the 2018-19 school year, according to a March 22 article in the News & Observer, however the effort did not receive funding in this year’s budget.

In Maine, there is a proposed bond issue to help pay off student loan debt for those that live and work in Maine after graduation, that may still be considered anytime during the October special session and/or during the 2nd regular session of the 128th legislature that convenes January 3. 

With the amount of activity that occurred in 2017 around free tuition, momentum on the issue is likely to increase over the coming years as states grapple with increasing demands for a skilled workforce. Already one Florida legislator has introduced a measure (HB-181) that would cover 100 percent of tuition at state colleges for students whose household income is under $125,000 a year if they agree to live and work in Florida after graduating. And similar movements are underway in both Massachusetts and California

Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennesseefree tuition, workforce, higher ed, policy