President Biden is calling on Congress to fund a $109 billion program for tuition-free community college, an initiative that has gained support in recent years but still isn’t a guaranteed legislative victory.
The administration’s American Families Plan unveiled Wednesday proposes billions of dollars in higher education investments that would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $1,400, provide two years of subsidized tuition to historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions for students from families who earn less than $125,000, and create a grant program to fund student success services at colleges that serve a high number of low-income students. All together, spending would top $250 million.
Biden wants to fund his $1.8 trillion plan -- which addresses a range of issues from affordable childcare to unemployment insurance reform -- by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and closing tax loopholes.
The plan has the support of the American Association of Community Colleges, which has been advocating for tuition-free community college for several years, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for AACC.
“We think that the proposal will have a dramatic positive impact on the ability of students to successfully participate in community college education,” Baime said.
The additional funding for HBCUs and MSIs was praised by National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education president and CEO Lezli Baskerville, who called the proposed investments "transformational."
"[The investments are] sorely needed to ensure that HBCUs, predominantly Black institutions and other postsecondary institutions that educate disproportionate percentages of persons of least advantage are prepared, inspired and supported into and through college graduation," Baskerville said.
Biden campaigned on tuition-free college at two-year and four-year institutions, though the latter is excluded from his plan. He also promised to double the Pell Grant award -- a fact sheet for the plan calls the $1,400 increase a “down payment on President Biden’s commitment.”
“This is a revolutionary federal policy proposal,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. “It is very different than anything we have ever tried to do before in postsecondary education.”
Former president Obama proposed a plan for free community college during his 2015 State of the Union address, but the American College Promise proposal went nowhere. It did, however, inspire many districts and a few states to advance the idea. This time could be different.
“The Congress was Republican at that point, and there was no interest in giving Obama a big policy win,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute and author of The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Access, Equity, and Prosperity, published by Harvard Education Press.
Three bills have recently been introduced in Congress to cut tuition costs for students, including the College for All Act -- introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont, and Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington -- and the Debt-Free College Act, introduced by Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, and Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin. Both bills go further than what Biden has proposed -- Sanders and Jayapal included free tuition for four-year public colleges in their bill, while Schatz and Pocan's legislation is meant to cover the full cost of attending college instead of only tuition.
Observers say the Biden plan seems to most closely match the America’s College Promise Act -- introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin, the Democrat from Wisconsin, and Representative Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan -- though the administration hasn’t officially endorsed a specific bill.
“Providing free community college is a bold first step to make college more affordable and provide students pathways to higher education and workforce training without debt,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chair Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington and co-sponsor of the America’s College Promise Act. “I’ve seen firsthand that these institutions can change students’ lives -- so I’ll be fighting hard to get the president’s free community college plan signed into law.”
The America’s College Promise Act proposes creating a partnership between the federal government and states and Native American tribes in which the federal government would match $3 for every dollar that states invest to waive community college tuition and fees. But the bill may not be as clear-cut as it sounds.
“Major departures in public policy always involve unknowable outcomes,” Hartle said. “And it will play out differently in different states, because the financing of community colleges varies across state lines.”
Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy and knowledge management at the think tank New America, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that because the Biden plan would require states to eliminate community college tuition to receive funding, states with high tuition costs -- like Vermont -- would have to shoulder both the costs of matching the federal government and making tuition free.
“The plan is advertised as giving states $3 in federal funding for every $1 they commit in state funding, but that’s not actually how it would work,” Carey wrote. “While low-tuition states like California would get the full $3 from the federal government for each state dollar it commits to free tuition, Vermont would get only 23 cents.”
Because of this, some states might be hesitant to enter into the partnership. But there’s a lot of money on the table for their residents, said Miller-Adams, and it might be hard for states to say no.
“The state programs are almost all what you call ‘last-dollar programs,’” Miller-Adams said. “This is not like that. The support comes first, and if you qualify for Pell Grants, you get to keep those and use those to help pay for living expenses. It's a much more generous program.”
So far, Republicans haven’t been open to the American Families Plan. House Education and Labor ranking member Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, called the plan “another socialist ploy.”
“Childcare and postsecondary education need reform, but we cannot spend our way out of this problem,” Foxx said.
The resulting legislation to make community college tuition-free would need 10 votes from Republicans in the Senate to pass, unless Democrats try to sidestep the filibuster -- the drafted language would likely meet the requirements to pass through budget reconciliation with a simple majority vote, according to sources. But that means Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote from their party in the Senate.
“Right now, the Democrats on the Hill have a margin of three in the House and zero in the Senate,” Hartle said. “So it's not Republican opposition that's a potential concern. It's having unanimous Democratic support.”
Free community college is popular with the public, as more people become aware of the need for a degree or credential to be successful in today’s workforce, said Miller-Adams. That could be a potential selling point of the legislation as the economy recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In terms of looking at economic recovery from COVID, there is a general recognition of the need to make these kinds of investments to get people back in school and build a workforce and build economic mobility,” said Michele Streeter, senior policy analyst at the Institute for College Access & Success. “I would hope that there is pretty broad agreement on the need to make big investments in higher ed.”
The need to appeal to both the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party is likely why the Biden plan isn’t as big as it could’ve been, said Miller-Adams. And some argue that it should’ve been much bigger.
“We would certainly like to see a lot more,” Streeter said. “We'd like to see it build even more to expand out to all of the public four-years as well and making sure it does explicitly address those root causes of the college affordability crisis.”
At the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, President Peter McPherson was pushing for more aid for four-year colleges and universities. “We appreciate many of the investments proposed in the American Families Plan to support higher education access, affordability and success. Increases to the maximum Pell Grant to get to President Biden’s commitment to double Pell are crucial for low-income students. Similarly, we greatly appreciate the substantial support the plan provides for HBCUs and MSIs.”
But he added, “While these investments deserve much praise, the plan is unfortunately incomplete in our view, as it does not provide a broad strategy to increase access and affordability for public four-year university students. We strongly believe a federal-state partnership that provides free community college should, at a minimum, provide equivalent support to students attending public four-year institutions.”
Jalil Mustaffa Bishop, who is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and leading a national study on student loan debt among Black students, said the plan moves the free college discussion forward but fails to fully meet the moment.
“There are real equity concerns with the focus on tuition-only funding in these college proposals,” Bishop said. “Tuition does not make up the majority of college costs, which include room and board, books, and other living expenses. The current proposal might not do anything for the poorest college students if their tuition is already covered by existing grants.”
Still, the plan Biden has proposed is a big departure in federal policy, said Hartle, and it won’t be easy to get it past the finish line.
“This is a once-in-a-generation chance to see a very significant change in the direction of federal policy that might significantly increase access to higher education,” he said. “But it's not a slam dunk.”