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    What is First Dollar vs. Last Dollar in College Promise Programs?

    By Cait Williams

    Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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    Reviewed by Annie Trout

    Annie has spent the past 18+ years educating students about college admissions opportunities and coaching them through building a financial aid package. She has worked in college access and college admissions for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission/Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, Middle Tennessee State University, and Austin Peay State University.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: March 18th, 2024
    What is First Dollar vs. Last Dollar in College Promise Programs?

    If you’ve spent any time researching college promise programs, first dollar and last dollar are most certainly terms that you have seen. But what do they mean? In this article, we’ll look at what these terms mean and a brief look at what college promise programs are.  

    College promise programs 

    College promise programs were created with the idea that college costs should not be a concern for students considering a 2-year degree. As promise programs grew in popularity, some 4-year colleges began offering these programs for their students. Each promise program will have their own requirements so it’s important to review their criteria carefully to see if you qualify.

    “First dollar” and “last dollar” simply refer to the types of funding that college promise programs use. College promise programs are not quite the same as scholarships. So, let’s look at them each a bit more closely.  

    First dollar 

    We’ll start by discussing what “first dollar” means. The most important thing to know about first dollar is that you are given this money regardless of any other grants and scholarships you may already have. This means you can have other forms of funding that cover your tuition expenses and still receive first dollar money.  

    First dollar programs cover more than just tuition. First dollar funded promise programs can be used towards costs of transportation, room, board, and other expenses.  

    Last dollar 

    “Last dollar” funding is meant to help students after their other available sources of funding. For example, if you’ve received a federal grant, but it does not cover all your tuition, last dollar funding promise programs can step in to help you pay the rest. This means that if you are the recipient of other funds that cover all your college expenses, you may be ineligible for the last dollar promise funds. 

    First and last dollar program variations

    Each program will vary on what awards will be applied to your student account before promise, some may pay after federal or state funds have been applied–meaning you could still get private scholarships to cover books/supplies/other educational costs. Others may wait and only pay after every type of aid you receive has been applied to your account.

    What requirements need to be met to be eligible for the Promise Program?

    Promise programs all have their own specific requirements, but there are a few broad things that most programs require for eligibility. Most college promise programs require that:

    • Students have a minimum high school grade point average
    • A minimum ACT/SAT test score
    • Students place into college-level courses

    The best match for you 

    So, which promise programs should you apply to, and should you apply based strictly on the type of funding they use? Applying to a promise program shouldn’t be based purely on the source of funding, as financial plans can change.  Take a look at the following questions to help determined what’s best for you:

    Questions to consider 

    • What sources of funding do you currently have?  
    • Have you previously applied to any promise programs? 
    • What other expenses, such as transportation, living, childcare, etc., do you have in addition to tuition?  

    A reminder about your state’s Promise Program: No matter what, apply! 

    Every high school senior should apply for their state’s promise program (deadlines vary by state, so check yours!). Maybe you are questioning why you should take the time to apply when you know you won’t need the program? People sometimes change their minds the day before they’re supposed to head off to their four-year college or a world-wide pandemic breaks out. If students didn’t apply by their state’s promise deadline, they’re paying full price at community college unless they decide to sit out the semester. 

    Further reading: Do you have to pay scholarships back if you drop out?  

    Other options in lieu of promise program funding

    Because college promise programs are not available at all colleges within the United States, they may not be a possibility for you. If that’s the case, don’t start to worry just yet. There are lots of other scholarship opportunities that you can apply for. Take some time to explore the other articles listed below!  

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    Frequently asked questions about First Dollar vs. Last Dollar in College Promise Programs

    What happens to any unused scholarships or grants?



    If you receive more funding through grants and scholarships than is needed, you will typically receive that money in what’s called a refund check. A refund check usually comes directly from the school you are attending. 

    However, this may be subject to change depending on the school you attend and how your scholarships and grants are awarded to you. Check with your financial aid office to ask specifically about receiving a refund for unused grants and scholarships.

    Do you have to pay scholarships or promise programs back if you drop out?

    Paying back funds you receive if you choose to drop out of school is not a fixed rule. Whether or not you will have to pay money back depends on the scholarship or promise program itself. Again, this is a question that should be answered when you receive a scholarship or reach out directly and ask about it.  

    How long do college promise programs last?

    This depends on the specific program. Some promise programs are through colleges that may only offer two-year degrees. However, some programs last up to eight or more semesters. The duration of funding should be made known to you before you apply.  

    What expenses do promise programs cover?

    What a promise program covers depends on whether they are supported by last dollar or first dollar. First dollar covers a wider range of expenses, such as books, transportation, and more. However, last dollar funding typically only covers tuition or the school’s direct costs.

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