States’ Free Tuition Programs Could Boost Student Housing Industry

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont made plenty of waves during last year’s presidential campaign when, among other things, he advocated for free college tuition nationwide.

Though he did not win the Democratic nomination and many mocked his free-tuition idea, several states have taken heed of Sanders’ call.

Tuition and housing are the two biggest expenditures for college students and their families. And while the student housing industry offers beds at a variety of price points, tuition rates often force students to choose a school near their homes or rent a bed at the least expensive on- or off-campus property available.

But four states, one city, and one individual university have developed programs through which some students can cut all tuition costs, which would help increase enrollment and, therefore, student housing demand. At least one other state is considering a similar plan.

While many states offer grant and scholarship programs that can greatly reduce tuition costs and scholarships from universities, corporations and foundations also help, the government-sponsored free-tuition programs are designed to make a college education more accessible to all residents. Almost all of the programs have residency and/or income requirements, and two even require recipients to remain in the state for a certain period of time after graduation.

These programs typically fund students on a “last-dollar” basis, in that students receive grants to fill in the gaps between any other federal or state grants, such as Pell Grants, and the cost of tuition. These are not usually “full rides;” they do not include room, board or fees.

Tennessee became the pioneer in this trend when it established the Tennessee Promise program in 2014. More than 33,000 students have since taken advantage of the grants, according to a “CNN Money” story, and its age limit will be raised from recent high school graduates to all adults beginning in Fall 2018.

Tennessee Promise provides two years of tuition at the state’s community colleges and technical schools for those who have been Tennessee residents for at least one year before applying. The beneficiaries must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average (GPA) and handle a course load that qualifies them as at least a part-time student.

This initiative has been so successful that states as large as New York have developed their own versions of the program. At this point, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, taking effect this fall, is the only tuition-free program that can last up to four years. Recipients can attend any State


University of New York or City University of New York school.

This program is similar to the free-tuition initiative that Sanders advocated.

The Excelsior website states that more than 940,000 people will be eligible for the program. Recipients must be state residents whose families make no more than $100,000 (the maximum income will rise to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019), and they must take 30 credits per calendar year – basically a full-time load.

The kicker is that beneficiaries must live and work in New York state after graduation for the length of time in which they participate in the program. So, if a student receives an Excelsior Scholarship all four years, they must stay in the state for the next four years.

Of course, as Frank Sinatra sang, if they can make it there, they’ll make it anywhere.

The Oregon Promise grant, unlike New York’s program, has no income ceiling, but does require its recipients to have recently earned a high-school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credentials. Students must also have had a GPA of 2.5 or higher.

The Oregon program also is available only for those attending one of the state’s 17 community colleges.

Minnesota is entering the second year of its pilot Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Two-Year Occupational Grant Program. The initial version of the initiative was available for students entering one of the numerous eligible state community college programs in Fall 2016 and will continue into their upcoming second year.

This program was open only to Minnesota residents with individual or parental income of $90,000 or less, who graduated from high school or earned a GED during the 2015-16 school year. Students completing an Americorps program that began immediately after high school during that year also were eligible.

In San Francisco, more than 28,000 residents could benefit from a new city program that would provide free tuition to San Francisco City College.


There is no income maximum, though low-income students would also qualify for a $250 fee waiver that could help pay for books and transportation.

Meanwhile, Florida International University in Miami is offering its “Golden Promise,” for students who stated they would have no Expected Family Contribution on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They generally have a family income of less than $33,000.


Recipients, who must be Florida residents, will receive full tuition and fees for 24-30 credit hours per year as long as they maintain a 2.0 GPA.

Rhode Island is poised to become the next state to join the free-tuition bandwagon. Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed to expand the Rhode Island Promise program to provide two years of free tuition to any Rhode Island resident at any state school. Students could use the grant at a state community college, or for the final two years of school at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College.

However, the Rhode Island House in mid-June passed a version of the plan that cut back on eligibility. The House’s program would be applicable only to community colleges, create a minimum GPA of 2.5 for recipients and require beneficiaries to live and work in the state for two years after graduation, according to a “Providence Journal” report.

The program would take effect this year.