Will Free Community College Be Cut From $3.5 Trillion Spending Bill?

Will Free Community College Be Cut From $3.5 Trillion Spending Bill?

October 8, 2021

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The Biden administration's top education official is worried that free community college may be cut from a massive spending package being negotiated by Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Most of President Joe Biden's domestic legislative agenda, including free community college, is wrapped up in an immense $3.5 trillion spending package that the U.S. House passed Aug. 24. Senate Democrats hope to pass the bill through reconciliation, which simply requires a majority vote.

However, with the Senate split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes, Democrats need unanimous support in their party. To get the buy-in of moderate senators, the bill could shrink substantially.

The ongoing negotiations led U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to tell reporters he was "worried" that free community college, a program tabbed at $45.5 billion, could be one of the concessions Democrats make to woo caucus moderates.

Biden promised free universal pre-K, community college, and four-year college while campaigning for president. The domestic spending bill makes good on the first two promises. However, both may not make it into the budget's final draft.

"That would be a shame because we're so close to leveling the playing field for so many students," Cardona told POLITICO while promoting the president's plan in five Midwestern states.

Details For Free Community College Plan

The plan for free community college included in the spending bill aligns closely with the America's College Promise Act first proposed by the Obama administration in 2015 and reintroduced by Democrats in April.

The proposal establishes federal-state partnerships to provide two years of community or technical college for free. It would be up to individual states to opt into the universal community college plan.

To receive funding, states would be required to eliminate community college tuition. The federal government would finance the first year of the plan, then reduce its investment by 5% per year for the next four years. At that point, the state will shoulder 20% of costs.

The free community college proposal advertises that the federal government would match $3 for every $1 invested by the state. However, the math works out differently state to state, depending on the education spending already in place there.

An analysis by The Century Foundation published last month, found that states with the highest community college costs would need to increase their annual investment in community colleges in order to participate in the funding partnership. The think tank estimates that new investment required may be as much as 40% in Pennsylvania, 51% in South Dakota, and 199% in Vermont, even in the first year of the program when the states’ share of costs is lowest.

On the other hand, in states that already have low or free tuition, funding may exceed the amount needed to cover tuition and fees.

“This overflow money rewards the states that have prioritized affordability at community colleges—such as California, New Mexico, and Nebraska, for example—allowing them to invest this new money into their public universities, dual enrollment programs, and interventions to improve student outcomes,” the TCF report found.

Americans Support Free Community College

American adults generally support making public colleges tuition-free. However, there are significant demographic divides on the question. Age is one factor: 63% of all U.S. adults favor free college. But while 73% of adults under the age of 30 support it, just about half (51%) of those 65 and older support it.

Gaps in opinion are even wider between racial groups. Compared to the 53% of white adults who favor free public college, well over three-quarters of Black (86%) and Hispanic (82%) adults want to see higher education go tuition-free for all U.S. students.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray is among the Democrats working to keep free community college in the spending package. The former community college instructor is a sponsor of the America's College Promise Act and chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The crises of rising costs of higher education and growing student debt have only been made worse by the pandemic, she said in a May statement lauding the proposal.

"As we look to build back stronger and fairer from the pandemic, we are on the cusp of delivering a historic investment in higher education that will transform the lives of millions," she said. "When we invest in higher education, we are investing in our families and our future as a country by helping people pursue new skills and creating a more competitive workforce for the 21st century."


Feature Image: Kevin Dietsch / Staff / Getty Images News

College students stand to benefit from Biden's new proposals, which include two years of free community college, more Pell Grant funding, and retention efforts. President-elect Joe Biden promises free community college to all, free four-year college to some, and improved student debt repayment plans. Student loan debt relief is a growing need. This article analyzes proposals for loan forgiveness and free public college tuition.