WASHINGTON – As part of President Joe Biden’s $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan,” the White House on Wednesday unveiled a proposal to eliminate tuition costs at two-year community colleges across the country.
“I am personally excited and appreciative of the president’s understanding of the value for community college and the critical role we play in the economy overall,” said Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Christine Johnson. “Particularly for lower-income students, for whom we really are the pathway to prosperity.”
The proposal, which the White House says would cost $109 billion, is part of a broader set of measures that aim to reduce costs and improve outcomes in higher education. Other spending outlined in Biden’s plan would increase Pell Grant amounts for low-income students, fund schools that serve minorities, and fund efforts to help more students stay in school and finish their degrees.
“It’s a recognition that post-secondary education has now become sort of essential, just like a high school education was 50 years ago, to participation in the economy,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The focus on two-year colleges is in line with Biden’s aim to rebuild blue-collar careers – First Lady Jill Biden has taught at community colleges since 1993 – but some Democrats have pushed for a more ambitious free-college plan. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Seattle, introduced a bill April 21 that would also make tuition and fees free at four-year public colleges for families making up to $125,000 a year.
“This is a proposal that kind of plays it safe,” said Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank. “There is, generally speaking, a lot of support for at least some free college. There’s less support when you start talking about how much college.”
A February 2020 Pew Research Center survey found 63% of U.S. adults favored making tuition at public colleges free, including 39% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats.
Biden sought to sell the nation on his plans during his Wednesday night address to a pared-down joint session of Congress, but exactly what legislation gets enacted will be up to lawmakers, who control the power to authorize the spending the president is calling for. While Republicans are unlikely to support Biden’s plans, which they say are too expensive, Democrats have put forth multiple proposals to make community college free.
Jayapal’s proposal, which she introduced with Sen. Bernie Sanders, would have the federal government pay 75% of tuition costs while states pay the other 25%, but it does not account for vast differences in tuition costs between states. Community college tuition is six times higher in Vermont, Sanders’ home state, than in California, according to the New York Times.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, introduced another bill Tuesday that would pay 75% of the nationwide average tuition cost, giving states an incentive to standardize tuition rates.
Hansen said using taxpayer money to make tuition free is likely to bring a strong return on investment in the long run, both through increased income tax from higher-earning graduates and from “social returns” like less crime and fewer people relying on welfare.
“The expectation is that, particularly in these first two years of community college, we are going to be recouping that investment over time,” he said.
So-called “college promise” programs that guarantee financial aid or free tuition have already been implemented in several states, Hansen said, with promising results.
Rick MacLennan, president of North Idaho College, said he has personally experienced the positive impact such programs can have on a community.
“I was President at Garrett College in western Maryland, a college that had implemented a promise program,” MacLennan wrote in an email. “In 2005 the college had no promise scholarship type of program and 19% of local high school graduates enrolled. In just one year after implementing a promise program (in 2006), the college increased to 46% of the area’s local high school graduates enrolling at the college.”
Johnson said Washington state has already done a good job of helping low- and middle-income students attend college. The state Legislature expanded the Washington College Grant program in 2019 to cover tuition for low-income students.
“We all know that more education is going to be the way out of poverty for many students, and in our region we have so many rural communities where there’s fewer jobs,” Johnson said.
Access to affordable community college, she said, gives students “the kinds of skills where they could work anywhere, from those communities, so they don’t have to all move into cities.”
Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, said eliminating tuition costs may not do enough to make higher education affordable for the students the measure seeks to help. Room, board, books and other expenses make up the majority of costs for community college students, she said.
“For community college students, tuition is a tiny part of their budget,” Baum said. “So free tuition, which most low-income students already have at community colleges, doesn’t solve the problems for low-income students.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced a bill April 22 that would pay for all of those expenses, but the White House plan takes a narrower view of covering costs.
Baum pointed to another part of the plan the administration unveiled Wednesday, free preschool and funds to help parents pay for child care, as potentially doing more to advance equity in the long run.
“I would say actually Biden’s proposals for early childhood education and child care are probably much more important in terms of increasing college opportunities,” she said. “That is what people need. They need to have a good background and be prepared, and then when they get to 18, they’ll be much more likely to go to college and succeed.”
Another potential downside to free community college tuition, Baum and Hansen said, is that it can steer low-income students into two-year programs when they might otherwise pursue a four-year degree. A 2019 report by a team of Brookings Institution researchers found free community college reduces the rate of completing four-year degrees.
Still, Hansen said, the benefits of more affordable community college outweigh this “diversion effect.”
Even with the existing help Washington provides to low-income students, Johnson said, Biden’s proposal could make a world of difference for community college students.
“They’re talented, they’re smart, they’re ambitious,” she said. “They just don’t have the funds.”
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