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History of Free College Tuition

This chart summarizes the major developments in proposals to adopt free tuition at public colleges and universities in the U.S.

history of free college tuition
Year Event
1935 Arizona state constitution requires its state colleges to provide instruction that is “as nearly free as possible.” The Arizona Supreme Court has allowed fees to be charged, so long as they are not “excessive or other than reasonable.” In practice, this leads to in-state tuition in Arizona that is among the bottom third of public colleges and universities nationwide.
1984 California community colleges were free until 1984-85, when a $5 per credit unit charge was implemented.
1987 Say Yes to Education founded.
1990 Indiana 21st Century Scholars Program provides free college tuition to Indiana 7th and 8th graders who participate in college prep activities, maintain passing grades, and stay drug and alcohol free.
1998 Princeton University launches “no loans” financial aid policy for low-income students starting in 1998-99, expanding it to all students receiving need-based aid in 2000-01.
2005 Kalamazoo Promise revealed on November 10, 2005.
2007 Leo Kornfeld and Mark Kantrowitz call for national policy to “eliminate loans from the financial-aid packages of low-income students” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 9, 2007).
2009 American Opportunity Tax Credit expands the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit to “make community college completely free for most students.”
2013 Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT) founded as Redeeming America’s Promise in May 2013.
2014 Tennessee Promise provides tuition-free community college education starting with the high school graduating class of 2015. The Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program and requires a minimum of a 2.0 GPA and 8 hours of community service. (February 3, 2014)
2014 Arizona State University – Starbucks College Plan. Provides free tuition for ASU’s online programs to full-time and part-time Starbucks employees. (June 15, 2014)
2014 Demos Affordable College Compact proposes debt-free education. (September 14, 2014)
2015 America’s College Promise. President Obama proposes to eliminate tuition and fees at community colleges for students who are enrolled on at least a half-time basis with a 2.5 GPA on a 4.0 scale. About a third of the 9 million current community college students would qualify. The cost would be $60 billion over 10 years. (January 8, 2015)
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