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How To Get Free Tuition For Higher Education In California

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Higher education can be expensive, yes. But it’s not always expensive. If the cost of tuition is a major factor for you in deciding whether and how to go to school, make sure you’re acquainted with some of the ways you can get educated for free:

(Note: This is part of our guide on navigating the higher education landscape, How To Get To College In California. Check out the full guide, which includes an overview of all the types of schools in the state, where to find data about what kind of jobs students get after graduating, how to find on-campus child care, and a lot more.)

All California community colleges waive tuition for low-income students via the California College Promise Grant. You can get this grant if you’re a California resident (or, if you’re undocumented, you can qualify as a resident for tuition purposes — read more about that here). If you’re a youth experiencing homelessness under age 25, you’re automatically eligible for this grant. Otherwise, you also have to demonstrate financial need in one of three ways:

College Promise programs often guarantee a year or more of free tuition at particular community colleges. For instance, the L.A. College Promise program grants two years of free tuition at any community college in the L.A. Community College District, provided you’re a California resident (or are eligible for in-state tuition), you’ve never completed any college credits before and you’re enrolled full time — and no, it doesn’t matter what year you graduated from high school. Here’s a handy list of other College Promise programs throughout California, compiled by the College Promise Project.

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Calbright College, an exclusively online public college tailored for working adults, is tuition-free by default. (Here’s a little more about Calbright.)

If you’re 60 and older, some California State University (CSU) campuses waive tuition and many other fees for you. The catch: students in this program get last-priority registration (meaning you can only register once all other admitted students have claimed their seats). You can read more higher education tips for older adults in our full guide.

Current and former foster youth under the age of 25 can attend any CSU or UC free of tuition. (Here’s more about grants and other support for foster youth and higher education.)

If you’re a child or spouse of a military veteran whose death or disability was connected to their service, you may be eligible for free tuition at any California public college (community college, Cal State or University of California school) via the CalVet College Fee Waiver. See more details here.

University of California (UC) schools and the University of Southern California will cover or waive tuition if your family income is less than $80,000.

Employers often have tuition reimbursement programs for employees who are studying something related to their work. More recently, companies like Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon announced full tuition coverage for employees pursuing associate or bachelor’s degrees at certain schools. Other companies may offer a set amount of tuition reimbursement per year for certain kinds of programs.

Federal, state and school grants are another major way that many students get tuition covered. The federal Pell Grant and state Cal Grant are automatically awarded to students who demonstrate financial need and meet other eligibility criteria. Depending on the school you’re at, these grants can cover the cost of tuition and other expenses like books or room and board.

So how do you actually claim this money?

In most cases, all you have to do to get your tuition waived under any of these programs is fill out a financial aid form — a FAFSA or a CADAA. Schools will look at that form and determine if you qualify.

Have a question about getting to higher education?

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