No more kicking the can down the road on free community college

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Last week, the White House and Congress announced a reconciliation deal without President Biden’s proposal for free community college. The proposal, named America’s College Promise, would have established a landmark partnership between the federal government and states to eliminate community college tuition and fees. 

For the first time, students nationwide would have had a predictable, no-cost, high-quality enrollment option, freeing the Pell grant and other aid to cover non-tuition expenses. The plan would have helped 8 million eligible students enroll at community colleges and earn workforce-ready credentials, and also helped prepare the 47 percent of bachelor’s degree earners who start at a community college. Many states would have had leftover funds to invest in student success and supplemental aid at public colleges. 

Instead, Congress is poised to fund a $550 Pell grant increase: A valuable boost, but one that lacks long-term incentives for lowered charges or new state funding.

The cut is disappointing, but in the grand scope of higher education policy, it’s not surprising. We’ve seen lawmakers punt on college affordability time and time again. Despite high hopes and campaign promises, this year is like any other. 

Lawmakers can afford to delay change because higher education is one of the few sectors of social policy that can be starved of funding and still stand on its own. As revenues plummeted during the Great Recession, states slashed funding for public colleges by 23 percent. Yet, in the recession’s aftermath, public colleges educated more students than ever

The tradeoff is twofold. Low fiscal support means rising tuition, which has outpaced inflation by 55 percent at community colleges and 88 percent at public four-years over the past 20 years. This contributes to growing student loan burdens, which increased for new bachelor’s degree earners by 69 percent between 2000 and 2016 and now total $1.7 trillion nationwide

Every year that lawmakers fail to step in and reverse these trends, a college degree becomes increasingly the privilege of the wealthy. Eventually, we reach an inflection point where higher education functions more in service of inequality than against it. We may have already crossed that threshold. 

College affordability is the can that gets perennially kicked down the road, a refrain of “We’ll do it next year.” Leaders in Congress have begun to envision a reconciliation effort next year that could include free community college, and President Biden has said he is committed to getting his plan enacted “in the next several years.” 

These are easy statements for officials to make now. Absent public pressure, they’ll be easy to walk back months later. It’s on all of us to keep up the pressure for free community college. But two groups, in particular, need to get on board. 

The first is universities. The conventional wisdom is that free community college represents a loss for universities. It’s actually the opposite. 

Under America’s College Promise, states must maintain existing levels of fiscal support for higher education, and specifically, states must maintain operational support for public universities. States could not cut public universities’ funding on the whims of a new legislature or governor, or during economic downturns when Americans who fall on hard times turn to college the most. 

That one provision would constitute the biggest win for public universities so far this century.

Further, states can use leftover ACP revenue for financial aid for students at public universities, a pot of funds totaling $4.6 billion in ACP’s first year alone. That’s not to mention the new stream of well-prepared community college graduates enrolling in universities to round out their bachelor’s degrees. 

Next, we need Republican leaders to recognize — and vocalize — that this plan is good for their states and their voters. 

Free community college is not a “blue” idea. Biden’s plan has roots in the Tennessee Promise, a popular free tuition program enacted by a Republican governor. If passed, America’s College Promise would supercharge free tuition programs that already operate in states as red as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. 

And free community college is good fiscal policy. With more degrees, Americans would need less support from welfare programs, would pay more in taxes, and would spend less time unemployed. An earlier version of the Biden plan containing free community college was projected to pay for itself within 10 years.

Because states must opt into the plan, Republican support continues to matter after Congress does its part. If America’s College Promise passes but the same states that turned down Medicaid expansion don’t join, new federal money per Black community college student would drop 46 percent

Instead of taking their opposition for granted, let’s ask Republican members of Congress why they won’t support this proposal, which 65 percent of their own voters approve of and would benefit 3.6 million students in Republican senators’ states. As we enter a midterm election year, call your elected officials in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, and ask: Will you vote ‘yes’ for America’s College Promise? 

If Congress says it will get done next year, then let’s hold them to that. Next year, we can’t take “Next year” for an answer. 

Peter Granville is a senior policy associate at The Century Foundation, where his work focuses on policy efforts to improve college access and affordability. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterHGranville. 

Tags College Promise Community colleges in the United States Free education Higher education in the United States Joe Biden Pell Grant Student financial aid Student financial aid in the United States Student loan

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