The financial burden of a community college education depends primarily on your state of residency and the number of credit hours you will be taking. Because room and board is not calculated in the cost of attendance, you may also incur bills for housing, meals, and transportation. Luckily, community college students are welcome to apply for financial aid to help offset the costs of education.
How does the number of credit hours I take affect my tuition bill?
At many community colleges, tuition is charged by the credit hour; you are not likely to pay a fixed fee for the semester. The more credit hours you take, the higher your tuition bill will be. Similarly, the fewer credit hours you take, the lower your bill will be. Both situations have their advantages and disadvantages. If you take a full course load, your tuition bills will be higher, but you will complete the program faster, thereby entering the workforce (and paying off your debt) faster. If you enroll as a part-time student, your tuition bills will be more manageable each semester; you may be able to pay them as you go, which means you could graduate with little to no debt. It will, however, take more time for you to complete your requirements. Weigh your options carefully before making your decision.
It should be noted that if you apply and qualify for financial aid, you will receive a better award if you are enrolled in classes full-time. If you are a part-time student who qualifies for financial aid, your award will be adjusted based on the number of credit hours you are taking. If you fall below half-time enrollment, you will lose out on some sources of aid entirely. Contact the financial aid office at your school if you have specific questions about your enrollment circumstances and subsequent financial aid package.
How does my state residency status affect my tuition bill?
What you pay per credit hour at community colleges is determined by your state or county of residence. Tuition is generally cheaper the closer you live to campus. Some schools may offer discounted in-state tuition rates to all students in the state. Others may offer further discounts if you already reside in the county. Tuition generally increases for students living further away. While students in neighboring states or border counties may receive a small discount, out-of-state students typically pay full price.
Rates at your school depend on its policies, but in-state tuition will always be cheaper than out-of-state tuition. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College, tuition per credit hour for the 2019–20 school year is $210.00 for residents of New York and $320.00 for out-of-state residents. This cost discrepancy is typical. At most community colleges, you can expect tuition per credit hour to be anywhere from $50.00 to over $100.00 more expensive for out-of-state students.
As a community college student, am I eligible for federal financial aid?
Federal financial aid is often overlooked by community college students, but as long as your institution is accredited, you can (and absolutely should) apply for financial aid. The Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) is free to fill out and takes only about 30 minutes. Each year, the FAFSA becomes available on October 1, and the earlier you fill it out the better. You’ll need to input information about your banking and investment accounts as well as information from prior tax returns. The government uses this information to calculate an award based on how much money they believe you can contribute to your education. Spending 30 minutes filling out an online form may result in thousands of dollars; you can receive grants (free money), a work-study assignment, or low-interest loan options.
Bear in mind that your FAFSA results assume that you will enroll full-time. If you are a part-time student, you will be offered less financial aid.
Is the federal government the only source of financial aid out there?
No. Even if you do receive federal financial aid, you should see if you qualify or can apply for state and institutional financial aid as well. Over 20% of community college students received state aid and 7% received institutional aid in 2016–17 school year. More recently, in the 2017–18 school year, community college students received an average of $4,300 in grants and tax credits. This amount is higher than tuition and fees, and students who received aid were able to direct these funds toward their books, supplies, and transportation expenses.
While much of state aid comes in the form of lower tuition rates for in-state students, you may be eligible for state-based scholarships or grants as well. This money can generally not be used at a school across state lines (your state wants to entice you to stay) but will cut down on your overall cost of attendance should you choose to attend an in-state institution.
Institutional financial aid, as the name implies, comes from your school. Check with the admissions office at your prospective institutions to find out if there are any additional application forms you need to fill out.
Is it true that the federal government is making community college free?
In January 2015, President Obama proposed that two years of community college should be free for all students, made possible by a combination of state and federal funding. This act has not yet passed, but some states have already implemented legislation that achieves this goal.
Minnesota, Oregon, and Tennessee already have scholarship programs in place for students who want to attend community college. If a student has completed the FAFSA, received a federal award, and still must pay tuition, these scholarship programs will step in to cover the cost. Minnesota offers full tuition scholarships to students whose family income is less than $90,000 annually and who are interested in obtaining degrees or certificates from one of 1,200 programs. Oregon waives tuition for residents and provides them with a $1,000 grant. Tennessee provides full tuition scholarships at community colleges.
Similarly, the state of Kentucky will also step in to cover any cost remaining after a student’s federal financial aid package has been applied. The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program is open to Kentucky residents who have not yet earned a degree and have been accepted to an associate’s degree or certificate-granting program. This program was signed into law at the end of 2016.
New York State also just introduced the Excelsior Scholarship, which offers free tuition to students whose family income is less that $125,000 annually. Students can choose to attend any City University of New York or State University of New York branch, for either two or four years. Students must remain living and working in New York following graduation for the same length of time that they accepted the scholarship.
Other states that have created promise programs to ensure tuition-free community college education to residents include Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Many of these programs have income limits, some have GPA requirements, and students may be required to earn a certain number of credits each year to maintain their scholarships. Most cover tuition only after grants and other financial aid offerings have been applied.
Still more states are in the process of passing laws to ensure that community college is free for residents: Alabama, California, Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, and West Virginia.
How else can I come up with money to apply toward my tuition bill?
Once you know the total cost of attendance and receive your financial aid offer, you may still need to come up with some money to pay your tuition bills. Many students work part-time or full-time while attending college and apply their incomes to their educational costs. If you need additional funding, consider these sources:
How much will I have to pay out-of-pocket?
How much you have to pay out-of-pocket depends on the cost of tuition and room and board (if you’re attending one of the few community college that offers on-campus housing). It also depends on how much money the federal government and your school believe that you can afford to pay. You can decrease this amount by applying for financial aid from all sources. This outside money you have coming in to fund your education (your federal financial aid award, institutional scholarships or grants, and state scholarships or grants) reduces your out-of-pocket cost. Learn how to do the calculation here.
What other costs might I have?
Besides the obvious educational costs of tuition and fees, you may also need to factor in the cost of books, supplies, a parking pass, housing, transit to and from school, and meals. By adding all of these expenses to the out-of-pocket costs that you calculated above, you can estimate the entire cost of your education and your cost of living at the same time.
Page last updated: 05/2019
Financial Aid Basics for College Students
Federal Financial Aid: Everything You Need to Know
Nonfederal Financial Aid Options for Students
Military Educational Benefits
Answers for Students Considering Community College
Transferring to a Four-Year College
Preparing for a Career or Trade
The Community College Application