Many states offer free community college to some or all residents. But there’s some fine print that makes timely action necessary. Most states require students to apply for free community college during their senior year of high school.

By now, most college-bound seniors have a pretty good sense of what their plans are, and those plans might not include community college. Even so, applying for your state’s program probably still makes sense. Students end up spending time at community college for a variety of reasons. In my neighborhood where everyone who’s graduated from high school went on to college, about 1/3 of the students ended up doing a stint in community college. Illness, injury, gap years that don’t quite line up with the college year, transferring and more can leave a student needing a short-term, close-to-home option. Applying for free community college while you’re eligible can be like having an insurance policy against unforeseen circumstances because typically once these things happen, it’s too late to get in for free.

Your state’s policies may vary, but typically free community college requires application during spring of senior year of high school and is available only to those who have completed less than two years of college when they attend.