Spencer Platt/Getty Images
President Biden told Democratic lawmakers last week that tuition-free community college would likely be scrapped from his social spending package, disappointing higher education advocates and dealing a blow to the administration’s college-affordability agenda.
To appease moderate Democrats who weren’t willing to support $3.5 trillion in spending for Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, the White House has been working with Congress to make substantial cuts to the budget reconciliation bill. They’re reportedly discussing a price tag of between $1.75 trillion and $1.9 trillion over 10 years for the legislation -- excluding the America’s College Promise program as a result.
Thirty-two education and civil rights organizations issued a joint statement following the reports that the program was cut, condemning Biden for “abandoning” tuition-free community college and breaking the campaign promise he made to young voters. The groups included the Education Trust, the NAACP and the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, but none of the larger higher education associations.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that we seem to be governing based on arbitrary budget numbers rather than policy merits,” said Mark Huelsman, senior policy fellow at the Hope Center. “There was nothing that indicated that free community college was an unpopular idea -- in fact, it’s quite the contrary.”
The America’s College Promise program would’ve provided two years of universal tuition-free community college through a federal-state funding partnership. Initial proposals called for funding the program for 10 years, but it was decreased to five years before being dropped from the bill completely.
But a final deal still hasn’t been struck, and advocates aren’t giving up on America’s College Promise until the Build Back Better Act is on the president’s desk. Rise Inc., a student-led advocacy organization, hosted a virtual phone bank Friday to call Democratic lawmakers, urging them to keep tuition-free community college in the legislation. And community college leaders from across the country are continuing to lobby for its inclusion in the reconciliation bill, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
“We know that this is a critical opportunity for Congress to make college universal by making community college tuition-free, so we’re doing everything we can to convince all parties the value and the importance of doing this at this time,” Baime said.
Even if the program doesn’t make it into this bill, the push for tuition-free community college isn’t going away. Michael Dannenberg, vice president for strategic initiatives and higher education at Education Reform Now, views the program as taking a similar trajectory as most other big changes that work their way through Congress -- they take time.
“I have never seen a major legislative initiative not declared dead at least once before rising from the ashes and being enacted,” Dannenberg said. “It’s not over until it’s over, and even then, it’s not over.”
Biden said during a town hall hosted by CNN last Thursday that he will continue pushing for the free community college program throughout his presidency.
“I promise you -- I guarantee you -- we’re going to get free community college within the next several years, across the board,” Biden said. “This is about putting us into the game,” he said, acknowledging that many other countries provide more than 12 years of free education for their citizens.
But some believe this was Biden’s one big shot at passing tuition-free community college, and it may not come around again for the rest of his term. Because the program lacks bipartisan support, it would need to pass via the budget reconciliation process, which only requires 51 votes in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to advance legislation. But next year’s midterm elections -- which generally go against the political party that controls the White House -- may inhibit Biden from getting another reconciliation bill passed, said Jonathan Fansmith, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education.
“I don’t know when this opportunity is going to come around again,” said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at the think tank New America. “If we can’t get it right now, when the Democrats control the House, the Senate and the presidency, it’s not looking good for a while.”
Depending on congressional priorities, it’s possible that another budget reconciliation bill could pass in 2022, said Huelsman, adding that “this is clearly not an issue that’s going to go away.” Or a tuition-free community college program could be included in a long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Either way, the backlash that lawmakers are receiving from cutting the program this time could make them more inclined to include it in a future vehicle, he said.
“While we are disappointed by reports that America’s College Promise will not be included in the reconciliation bill, we believe that an investment in free community college will happen one day,” said Sameer Gadkaree, president of the Institute for College Access and Success.
The free community college movement could potentially benefit from shifting direction and expanding its base while narrowing its focus, said Dannenberg. Advocates could garner more support by adding four-year public institutions to their debt-free college promise, and further targeting the aid to lower-income families -- while including a minimal work or service requirement -- would make the proposal more attractive to moderate Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
For now, advocates are hoping that other college affordability measures that were proposed for the Build Back Better Act can remain in the legislation, even if tuition-free community college doesn’t. Baime said community colleges are also interested in the parts of the bill that provide support for college job training programs, college completion efforts and making Pell Grants tax-free.
The bill also includes a $500 boost to the maximum Pell Grant award, which could potentially be increased further if there’s additional funding in the legislation.
“If we can’t get free community college, that’s probably the next best alternative,” Fansmith said. “And we think it’s within their abilities to do that.”