Tuition-free college isn’t quite the holy grail of zero-cost higher education, but it’s pretty close.
In all, about 20 states offer students access to tuition-free college, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition.
Of these, 11 offer what’s known as a promise program, typically funding two years of education at participating community college.
They are Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee.
In March, West Virginia enacted its WV Invests Grant, which would cover the cost of tuition at nine community and technical colleges.
Families can save a sizable chunk of money if they had some relief from covering tuition expenses.
During the 2018-2019 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees for a public two-year institution was $3,660, according to the College Board.
But experts say that families should closely read the details of these tuition-free programs before deciding to commit.
Also, remember that while states administer these programs, your child needs to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) in order to qualify.
“In a way, some of these plans sound better than they really are,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at SavingforCollege.com. “They’re just tuition, and they don’t cover other costs.”
Tuition-free programs cover only that expense, but students often have additional costs to shoulder.
For the 2018-2019 school year, students in two-year colleges paid an average of $1,440 for books and supplies, according to the College Board. Transportation expenses averaged out to $1,800 for those students.
Students in four-year public colleges paid a little less. Books and supplies cost an average of $1,240, while transportation expenses totaled to $1,160, the College Board found.
“Cost of attendance” estimates that are provided by colleges aren’t necessarily the most accurate measure of how much you’ll actually pay.
For instance, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 2017-2018 housing costs averaged $9,857 for college students residing off-campus and attending a public four-year school.
Those housing expenses were $8,409 for students living off-campus and attending a public two-year institution.
In reality, those figures don’t account for other costs, including the fact that students must have the first and last month of rent when they seek apartments off campus, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.
Most free college tuition programs are “last dollar,” meaning that they cover tuition after you’ve used up all your grants and scholarships.
The “last dollar” structure makes these programs affordable to the states that offer them, said Kantrowitz. Be aware that this might mean students who are otherwise eligible for awards might pass them up.
“If you’re someone who’s won a lot of private scholarships, you might not want to opt into free tuition if your scholarships exceed the value of that free tuition,” said Kantrowitz.
Students would have to compare offers they get elsewhere alongside whatever free tuition program is offered in their state — as well as whether they’d need to borrow to cover books and other costs.
In this case, you’d have to study the net price at each school and compare your results. The net price is the cost of attendance less scholarships, grants and educational tax credits.
“If you’re low-income and you get a full ride at another college, you might end up paying less there than at a free-tuition college,” said Kantrowitz.
Depending on the state, participants in free tuition programs are subject to certain restrictions in order to maintain their eligibility.
This means your child might be required to complete a specified number of credits each year, maintain a minimum GPA or remain in the state for a certain period of time after graduation.
For instance, participants in New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program must remain in the Empire State for the length of time they received the award. If employed, they must be working in-state.
Here’s the catch: If your child doesn’t stay in New York, the tuition-free scholarship converts to an interest-free loan.
Further, New York students who fall behind academically, such that they can’t complete 30 credits over a one-year period, lose their funding.
Participants in the Arkansas Future Grant program must also remain in the state for three years and be employed within six months of getting their associate’s degree. If they miss this requirement, the grant converts to a loan.
Another quirk: West Virginia’s program requires participants to pass a drug test prior to each term in which they receive funding.
“If I were a family looking at different programs, I’d be aware of things that aren’t typical,” said Goldrick-Rab. “It’s not typical to have a residency after graduation requirement.
“Look for any strange fine print.”