As college tuition rates and inflation continue to rise, students and families throughout the US are feeling the crunch. If you live in California, however, you might be able to reduce your costs through free tuition. While getting into some of the top colleges in California can be challenging, paying for it doesn’t have to be. In this article, we'll take a look at some of the programs and colleges in California that offer free tuition. This list is by no means exhaustive.
Free tuition programs are generally reserved for students from families with low income. However, some universities like Stanford waives tuition for middle income families too. While most of the free tuition programs do not cover room and board, you can still save a nice chunk of change.
Is the University of California Free Tuition?
Yes, but not for everyone.
Let’s address this important question right of the bat. The University of California announced a free tuition program in 2022 for “California students of federally recognized tribes as a way to expand enrollment and keep Native students” (spectrumnews1.com).
Another program in place is the Blue & Gold Opportunity Plan for California residents from families with less than $80,000 a year in income.
To apply for the Blue & Gold program, contact the financial aid office at the schools you are interested in attending. Among other requirements, you will need to fill out a FAFSA or California Dream Act application and Cal Grant GPA Verification Form. This program is for students in the first four years as a UC undergraduate or first two years as a transfer student.
How do you qualify for free tuition in California?
Most of the free tuition programs in California have a financial need component.
If your family earns below a certain income, you could be eligible. However, you’ll need to check with the colleges you are interested in attending to determine your eligibility.
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The limits of free tuition college
While many colleges and states tout their free tuition programs, it still leaves a lot of expenses uncovered. Only a few colleges, such as Stanford University, cover the costs of room and board, textbooks, transportation, and other fees.
For this reason, it is important to look for other sources of funding even if you qualify for free tuition at one of these colleges. A couple of things you can do to reduce your costs are working part-time and applying for private scholarships – ones available outside of colleges. You could begin applying long before you are a high school senior.
7 Tuition-Free Colleges & Programs in California
1. California College Promise Program
The California Promise is California’s initiative to expand college access. The program offers first-time college goers a chance to attend one of the many public two-year colleges in California tuition-free.
Keep in mind, not all two-year colleges participate in this program. So, check with the school you are interested in attending to see if you can benefit from this program.
- California resident and students classified as non-resident “Dreamers”
- First-time student; full-time student
2. Calbright College
Calbright College, an online public two-year college in California, is free for every California resident. The programs are geared towards workforce training.
The college cater to students who opt not to attend a traditional college. They offer students workforce training and certification in programs such as IT, cybersecurity and customer relationship management software.
- California resident
- Over 18 years old
3. Soka University: Soka Opportunity Grant
Soka University, a private university founded in 1987, has a tuition-free program for eligible admitted students. The university’s commitment includes “providing students with an educational opportunity that fosters love for humankind” (soka.edu).
The Soka Opportunity Grant offers domestic and international students, and dreamers whose family earns $60,000 or a tuition-free education. To benefit from this program, you must be admitted to the BA in Liberal Arts program.
- FAFSA for domestic students; Soka Financial Aid Application for international students; and Dream Financial Aid Application for dreamers.
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4. Stanford University
As an elite university on par with the Ivy League schools, Stanford is hard to get into. However, if you have what it takes to get admitted, and you're eligible, you may end up paying nothing. Zilch. Nada.
If your family, for example, makes under $100,000 you will zero dollars in tuition, room and board or fees. This is one of the few free tuition programs that covers the full cost of room and board – most only cover tuition. However, if your family makes less than $150,000, you might only qualify for free tuition.
According to Stanford News, the average financial aid per student per year is $52,000. Of course, this amount varies depending on each family’s financial situation. The tuition to attend Stanford in 2022-23 academic year is $57,693. For room and board, you'll need to add another $18,000.
- Income less than $100,000 (free tuition, room and board); Income less than $150,000 (free tuition)
- Available to students who are accepted with financial need
5. USC: College Affordability Initiative
The University of Southern California (USC) is another very highly competitive university in California that offers tuition-free options. It was prominently featured in the admissions scandal (AKA Varsity Blues), due in part that it was the college of choice for a few of the high-profile defendants in the case. However, USC is also a place making strides in diversity with 20% of first-generation students admitted to the university in 2022.
In 2020, USC introduced the College Affordability Initiative making the university tuition free for students whose families earned $80,000 or less. This step was taken to remove the financial barrier that kept low and middle-income families from being able to afford the university.
USC awards about $640 million in financial aid each year. They plan to increase financial aid by a higher rate than the tuition increases each year. According to the US Scorecard, the average amount paid by USC students who receive financial aid is $33,000 per year. However, if your family earns $80,000 or less, you’ll be able to attend tuition free.
- Family must earn $80,000 or less.
- Student is required to submit the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE
- Must be accepted to the university.
- Students must be a US citizen, eligible non-citizen, or undocumented person some eligibility requirements.
6. University of California: Blue & Gold Opportunity Plan
The University of California (UC), one of the largest public research university systems in the country, offers a free tuition program. It is called the Blue & Gold Opportunity Plan. Nine colleges fall under the UC system: UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside and UC Merced.
If you are a California resident and your family earns $80,000 or less, you can attend one of the University of California (UC) colleges as an undergraduate tuition-free. According to the University of California, 55% of California students at the university pay no tuition.
The Blue & Gold Opportunity program also covers certain fees. If you have greater financial need, you may qualify for additional financial aid.
- California resident or eligible non-resident (under the state’s AB-540 rule)
- Meet certain high school/community college attendance requirements
- Graduate from California high school, associate degree or meet transfer requirements to a UC or California State University (CSU) campus.
7. University of California: Native American Opportunity Plan
Beginning in Fall 2022, all California Native American students can attend any University of California University (UC) tuition-free. According to the 2020 Census, 630,00 American Indians and Alaska Natives live in California.
- Registered with a Native American, American Indian and/or Alaska Native tribe
- Must be California resident
- New or current student at UC
Whatever your circumstances, don't let college costs keep you from attending college. There is always a way. If you are from California and qualify for any of these programs, then you're one of the lucky one. But even if you do not qualify for a free tuition plan, there are other types of financial aid available to you. Check with the specific college for more information.