Democrats show what a free community college could look like

After years of discussions and debates about offering a free community college across the United States, what once seemed improbable is now as close as ever to be a reality. House Democrats have given a glimpse of how the program would work in practice, although experts say it may still need some tweaking between now and its final passage.

Called America’s College Promise, a tuition-free community college plan is a provision of the upcoming Build Back Better Act currently being developed in Congress by Democrats. The $ 3.5 trillion legislation is expected to go through a procedural process called budget reconciliation, which means it won’t require any Republican backing to get to President Biden’s desk.

The bill includes other provisions relating to higher education, such as increased Pell grants, investments in historically black colleges and universities and other institutions serving minorities, and a grant fund for support college completion and retention efforts. But for many, America’s College Promise is the flagship of the legislation.

“I am pleasantly shocked and surprised that we are at this point in time where there is real legislation around a free national college plan,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, professor of political science at Grand Valley State University and researcher at the Upjohn Institute. “A few years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have predicted this.”

Here’s how the program would work: States must choose to participate in the program, which will be funded on the basis of a federal-state partnership. The federal government will provide 100 percent of the grant for 2023-24, the program’s first year, and its share will decline by 5 percent each subsequent year. States will have to make up the difference. Thus, for the second year, states will have to pay 5% of the grant. By 2027-2028, the program’s last year in legislation, the federal government will cover 80 percent of the grant and states will cover 20 percent.

But the amount of the grant will not be based on the actual amount of tuition fees by states, as higher education funding systems vary from state to state and some charge much more tuition fees. higher than others. The legislation will therefore give each state the same amount of money per student, whether or not it is the same as what they are currently charging, noted Kevin Carey, vice president of education policy and knowledge management at New America. This amount will be calculated based on the median resident tuition and fee per student in all states, which may or may not cover the full cost of community college, depending on the state.

In return, states will have to set their tuition fees at $ 0 for each student attending a community college – which is defined in law as a public institution where the highest degree or most predominant degree is a degree from associate. States will also need to ensure that they maintain the level of fiscal and financial assistance based on the needs they have granted to institutions over the previous three years.

The bill aligns with what has been proposed in the past for a tuition-free community college program, said Mark Huelsman, a policy researcher at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

“They’re all built on the same basic contours that the federal government funds most of the money, and then the states keep the investments and put the rest in,” Huelsman said. “I think the federal match and the federal investment here are shamelessly good business for the states. The incentive is very strong for them to participate, in terms of the amount of investment they get.

But Miller-Adams is not sure whether the investment is enough to convince states to join the program, especially since they will eventually have to pay 20% of the grants.

“I think that will be enough to get a bunch of states to say no,” Miller-Adams said. “Sometimes, for purely political reasons, states will say no the same way they did with the expansion of Medicaid. They have to make the potty so sweet that it’s an easy yes.

The cost of the overall packaging can be a barrier to sweetening the pot. Some moderate Democrats, like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, have already spoken out against its current price of $ 3.5 trillion. And Democrats are already trying to incorporate many priorities into legislation.

“I think there are real concerns about whether there is enough money in the bill to keep the promise,” Miller-Adams said.

It is not yet clear how much America’s College Promise will cost, but Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee have said the tuition-free community college, increased Pell grants, grant programs to train teachers, and targeted investments in HBCUs and MSIs will cost a total of $ 111 billion.

It might sound like a lot of money, but there is a need to compensate for the decline in higher education investment in the past, Huelsman said.

“It’s definitely more than what was spent a decade ago, but in terms of correcting the historical scale, it’s not that much,” Huelsman said. “People throw big numbers and say, ‘We’ve never spent so much money before. And that’s great. We have to spend a lot more.

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