What’s Next for the Free Community College Movement?

President Joe Biden campaigned on the promise of free community college for all, but the policy appears dead in Congress. Experts weigh in on where the movement goes now.

Updated January 28, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
What’s Next for the Free Community College Movement?
Featured Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

  • Experts believe it's unlikely free community college will pass nationally in 2022.
  • However, it could become a state issue in many parts of the country.
  • Advocates do not support an alternative that provides after-graduation debt forgiveness.

Free community college nationwide seemed within reach just three months ago with its inclusion in President Joe Biden's Build Back Better domestic spending bill.

But late last October, the provision was cut from the bill in a bid to gain the support of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who both opposed that specific policy. The cut was not enough to appease Manchin, who on Dec. 21, 2021, announced he could not support Build Back Better, denying Democrats the necessary 50 Senate votes required to pass the bill through reconciliation.

With Biden's domestic agenda — including many of his key higher education promises — now up in the air, education and policy experts don't expect the issue of free community college to resurface on the federal level in any meaningful way.

“We don't see a standalone bill being passed this year by the Congress”
Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition

"As long as Republicans in Congress stand united against an idea they have not only supported, but [also] helped make … happen in many states, a standalone free college tuition bill has no chance of passing the Senate," Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, told BestColleges. "The appetite in the House [of Representatives] among Democrats for passing legislation that is destined to fail in the Senate is almost none, so we don't see a standalone bill being passed this year by the Congress."

However, experts interviewed by BestColleges emphasized that just because a standalone bill looks improbable, it doesn't mean policies supporting free community college won't advance in 2022. Instead, they predict progress to be made at the state level.

Politics Killed Free Community College in Congress

Mark Huelsman, director of policy and advocacy at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, agreed that federal action under this current Congress seems unlikely in the wake of the policy's elimination from the Build Back Better Act.

The fact that tuition-free community college was the first item cut from the massive spending bill doesn't bode well for the policy’s prospects the rest of this year, he said.

“Free community college didn't get cut because it's unpopular”
Mark Huelsman, director of policy and advocacy at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

"This is what happens when the federal government is governing based on arbitrary budget figures rather than looking at policies on their merits," Huelsman told BestColleges. "Free community college didn't get cut because it's unpopular; it got cut because there is a political incentive to decrease the cost of the bill. They were looking for things to cut, and this happens to be in the crosshairs."

In fact, policies creating tuition-free community and public colleges are popular across America.

In a 2021 BestColleges survey, 69% of respondents were in favor of free community college for either all or most first-time college students. During the same period, a Pew Research Center survey found that 63% of U.S. adults favor making tuition at all public colleges free.

But without support from Sen. Manchin, who has shown apprehension about tuition-free community college in the past, federal action is unlikely, Winograd added. As 2022 is also a midterm election year, Republicans are unlikely to cross the aisle to work with Democrats on this issue, he said.

Free Community College Has Bipartisan Support in Many States

Up to this point, virtually all progress toward tuition-free community college has happened at the state level, Winograd said. With federal action unlikely, it's where future movement is likely to come from, too.

In the past, Democrats and Republicans have worked together to make community college accessible in individual states.

Tennessee Promise, for instance, is a program that pays for two years of community college education for graduating high school seniors. Huelsman said the act was passed by a Republican governor and state legislature, indicating free community college can be a nonpartisan issue in some cases.

“This is not a partisan issue if your goal is to help the working class”
Mark Huelsman, director of policy and advocacy at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

"To me, this is an area that shouldn't be partisan; this can very easily be framed as a workforce issuem," Huelsman said. "Given who community colleges enroll — many older students and working class folks — this is not a partisan issue if your goal is to help the working class."

According to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, 18 states have tuition-free programs in place, and another nine have "extensive" scholarship programs. Seven states have had some recent activity suggesting they could soon implement similar programs, which leaves 16 states without any such programs and no indications of movement on the issue.

Winograd said some state lawmakers have been waiting to see what might be done at the federal level on this issue, which is part of the reason more states haven't made moves on this policy. Now that the issue has died in Congress, he said he expects more state legislatures to take up the issue in 2022.

Experts: Manchin Proposal Unlikely To Help Students

Sen. Manchin never supported the tuition-free community college proposal originally included in the Build Back Better framework. He previously stated he would rather make student loans used for community college forgivable, which he suggested would motivate students to complete their programs.

"Don't give it on the front end. Let them earn it on the back end," Manchin said to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona at a June 2021 Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Both Huelsman and Winograd agreed that idea likely wouldn't work.

"Obviously the policy details can be flexible, but I don't think there is a way to do this without meeting student costs while they are in school," Huelsman said.

He elaborated that many students don't trust government programs that promise to erase debt at a later date. Many student loan borrowers have been burned by the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) programs in recent years. These plans similarly promise to forgive students' debt after the fact, therefore making the Manchin proposal even less trustworthy for many Americans.

Winograd added that tuition-free programs in some states with strings attached — like the "stay or pay" provision in New York that requires graduates to continue living in the state for a certain length of time — have caused lower program enrollment rates.

"They are neither popular nor effective," he said.

The Campaign for Free College would not support a plan that burdens students to seek forgiveness on the back end, Winograd said.