Is Free Tuition Really Free?

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Free tuition sounds great on the surface. But what will it really cost you?

The concept of free tuition gets a lot of buzz. With college becoming more expensive every year and student loan debt levels reaching a national crisis, free tuition sounds really appealing at first. But does free tuition actually work out to be a sound financial decision? What are you actually signing up for with free tuition—and will it be a good proposition for your college degree?

Simply put: Is free tuition really free? Let’s find out!

Find Out What’s Included in Free Tuition—and What Isn’t

Free tuition programs have been cropping up around the country, with much fanfare: Last year, New York State made headlines with its Excelsior Scholarship, which offers free tuition at public universities and colleges throughout the state. Rhode Island, Tennessee, and West Virginia have made community college free. Over on the West Coast, the California Promise program makes the first year of community college tuition free to first-time students (although official funding has yet to be secured), and Oregon also has a free community college initiative. Finally, a host of smaller schools nationwide also offer free tuition.

But let’s dig a little deeper here. As many students and parents know, there are a lot of college costs beyond tuition—so “free tuition” does not necessarily mean “free college.”

When considering any tuition-free scholarship or free tuition programs, delve into the fine print. Excelsior, for example, offers a cap of $5,500 annually—whereas SUNY institutions charge $6,400 for tuition each year. The intended goal is for Excelsior to make up the difference between other scholarships and grants (such as federal Pell grants), but only for tuition expenses. So students will be expected to cover that $900 difference, as well as the other (potentially hefty) charges for room, board, textbooks, fees, and activities.

Regardless of location, if you’re considering a free tuition scholarship program, find out exactly what is and isn’t covered to get a better understanding of what you’ll have to pay.

Know Your Eligibility

The fine print doesn’t stop with what free tuition covers. You’ll also want to go over eligibility requirements carefully, especially if you anticipate your circumstances will change over the coming years. Eligibility requirements could include any of the following:

  • Residency in the state or region where free tuition is offered
  • A particular annual income bracket
  • A specific course load (e.g., minimum number of credits taken per semester or year)
  • A minimum GPA

You’ll also want to know if there are any factors that could jeopardize your eligibility for a free tuition scholarship. We mentioned grades/your GPA, but certain lifestyles could also put your free tuition at risk. For example, in West Virginia, legislators are considering requiring free tuition recipients to submit to drug testing in order to maintain their funding. If you fail the drug test, you’ll forfeit your scholarship. As each region will have different disqualifiers, make sure you know what’s expected of you so you don’t lose your funding.  

Are There Post-Graduate Requirements?

In addition to eligibility requirements for free tuition during college, you may be signing up for responsibilities after graduation. For example, students who accept the Excelsior Scholarship in New York agree to stay in New York for up to four years after graduating. If you leave New York earlier than the allotted period, you’re on the hook to pay back the free tuition—in other words, you now have a different type of student loan.

It bears repeating: Know what you’re signing up for so you’re not locked in to an undesirable arrangement later--or end up paying expensive penalties to extricate yourself. If you know you want to stay in the state where you’ve received free tuition, no foul. But if you want flexibility in where you live and work after graduation, a free tuition program’s post-degree stipulations may not be the best fit for you.   

Compare Prices Across All Options


Typically, the Edmit team recommends comparing apples to apples (e.g., traditional financial aid packages across colleges) to determine the best financial fit. But when it comes to free tuition initiatives, an apples-to-oranges comparison may be the better strategy to find the best value for your four-year degree.

Take your financial aid offers side by side. For the free tuition options, go over the fine print, your responsibilities during school and after graduation, and the cost of all college fees to calculate your anticipated net price each year. Then, compare your free tuition college prices with the more traditional financial aid packages at other colleges you’re considering. (If there are strings attached with those other financial aid awards, such as being locked in to a specific major or GPA, factor those in as well.)

Once you’ve run the numbers and looked at your responsibilities, consider each scenario holistically. Which scenario appeals most to you? Based on your comparisons, your finances, and what you hope to get out of college, you’ll be able to determine whether a free tuition college makes sense for you.

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