Free college tuition is easier than ever to get — but here's the fine print

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As anyone who's ever applied for financial aid knows, affordable tuition often seems possible only if you're willing to fill out a thousand forms, provide test scores, grades and proof of awesomeness, and promise your first born to the college of your dreams.

But what if you could go to college free of charge — without jumping through all those hoops? Sound too good to be true?

Not if you live in San Francisco.

Source: Giphy

Starting in the fall of 2017, San Francisco will be the first U.S. city to offer free tuition to any resident, regardless of income, at the City College of San Francisco.

In addition to free tuition for any two-year degree, the program will offer low-income students up to $500 per year for books, supplies, transportation and health expenses.

The funding is enough to cover academic credits for some 3,750 students taking full-time course loads, SF Gate reported. It's also expected to raise enrollment at the college, which receives state funding based on the number of students. Currently, enrollment totals 65,000 students.

And unlike other "free" college programs across the country, San Francisco's doesn't require proof of income, test scores or a financial aid application.

Applicants only need to prove residency for the previous 12 months.

Some states beat San Francisco — but their programs have a catch

Other free community-college deals have been available in Tennessee and Oregon since 2014 and 2016, respectively, but unlike the San Francisco program, applicants have to meet specific financial or academic requirements. 

For example, more than 58,000 students applied for the Tennessee Promise program in 2014, but only 16,291 scored the free tuition — some failed to fill out the financial aid forms or missed mandatory meetings, Oregon Live reported.

In Oregon, high school students must have at least a 2.5 GPA to qualify. There are similar programs in about 50 communities across the United States.

New York and Rhode Island are getting on board the free college train

Following in the footsteps of the City by the Bay, New York and Rhode Island are working to offer free college tuition beginning in fall 2017; both states would cover any tuition balance not met by existing state and federal grants.

Here's the fine print: In New York, only families earning less than $100,000 a year would be eligible for the tuition waiver for two- and four-year degrees at state or city universities, the New York Times reported.

The three-year rollout would begin with the $100,000 income limit before rising to $125,000 in 2019.

In Rhode Island, families must complete the FAFSA by July 1 and students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to keep the scholarship.

San Francisco, by comparison, places no financial requirements on students.

Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus.
Source: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Why the most affordable community college for you might not be "free"

It's important to remember that free tuition isn't the same as an all-expenses-paid trip to higher learning. In almost all cases, your cost of living — including food, transportation and housing  will far exceed your annual tuition at low-cost community colleges.

San Francisco, for example, is one of the most expensive U.S. cities, with median rent for a single room around $1,350, Curbed reported. So, while free tuition at City College certainly helps defray costs, it's just a fraction of your total living expenses

More affordable cities for students include Indianapolis; Memphis, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; and Columbus, Ohio, according to Money Crashers.

For more ideas on reasonably priced community colleges, check out Affordable Colleges' rankings, which look beyond tuition to graduation rates and the percent of students receiving financial aid.

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Gina Ragusa

Gina is a personal finance writer for Mic who resides in South Florida. Gina can be reached at gina@mic.com.

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