2 Proposals, 1 Goal: Biden’s Strategy to Advance Free Community College Across U.S.

Biden put forth two proposals for free community college in his latest budget pitch.
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  • The president laid out an expansive free community college plan that would cost $90 billion over the next 10 years.
  • Biden also proposed a more limited plan estimated at $500 million.
  • The two plans could offer insight into what the president thinks he could feasibly get done to advance free community college during his tenure.

In negotiations, there are two primary starting points: A foot-in-the-door or a door-in-the-face.

President Joe Biden's latest budget proposal seemingly takes the latter approach for free community college. The president's marquee plan includes a program that would pay for up to four years of community college tuition and fees for all Americans — but at a $90 billion price tag.

It's a hefty sum Congress is unlikely to accept, Campaign for Free College Tuition CEO Ryan Morgan told BestColleges.

"It's really just a starting point in a negotiation," he said.

Hence, the door-in-the-face analogy.

Biden also included a much lighter proposal to jump-start free community college across the U.S. His plan creates a grant program that would make community college tuition-free at select colleges that apply for the grant.

That program would cost $500 million — a much easier pill for Congress to swallow, Morgan said.

Breaking Down the Free Community College Proposals

A memo from the Department of Education (ED) breaks down each free community college proposal.

The first, simply called Free Community College, asks for $90 billion over the next 10 years to help fund free community college nationwide. The federal government would cover 75% of tuition and fees for community college students. States would have to cover the remaining 25%.

The plan would cover 90% of the costs for students in a recognized tribe. Their tribe would pay the other 10%.

First-time students and workers looking to reskill can use this benefit to attain an associate degree or credential. They must be enrolled at least half-time and maintain "satisfactory academic progress," according to ED's memo. Students can use the benefit for up to three years, and even up to four years "if circumstances warrant."

This program wouldn't launch until 2025 if approved.

Biden's other proposal — Accelerated Success: Free Community College — isn't as expansive as the $90 billion plan.

Accelerated Success is just a one-year grant program. ED would award grants to approximately 100 community colleges, and participating institutions would have to eliminate tuition and fees for attendees.

The department estimates the program would help approximately 90,000 in fiscal year 2024.

Like the $90 billion plan, Accelerated Success would operate as a first-dollar program. That means it would cover tuition and fees before grants and scholarships like the Pell Grant. Students could use additional aid money on other education-related expenses like books.

Why Are There Two Plans to Begin With?

The $90 billion plan stands little chance of actually moving through a divided Congress, Morgan said.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have already criticized Biden's spending plans in the past. Meanwhile, a previous proposal for free community college through Biden's Build Back Better plan failed in 2021 due to a lack of Democratic support in the Senate.

Morgan suspects the $90 billion proposal exists to make the $500 million plan look more palatable.

"It's more of a political reality," he said. "That fact that they're both in here sort of assumes the [$90 billion plan is] not going to happen."

That's not to say that the Accelerated Success grant program is a sure thing to pass as is. If and when the larger plan is abandoned, Biden may push for additional money for the Accelerated Success program, hopefully increasing the number of community colleges that could benefit.

Conversely, Congress may cut the program's impact to make room for other budget priorities.

It'll likely depend on how much bipartisan support free community college gathers. On the state level, governors on both sides of the aisle have been able to institute free college programs. The issue has been more divisive at the federal level, however.

Over 30 states have some form of free college, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

Building Momentum for Free College Nationwide

Whereas the $90 billion plan may be a door-in-the-face proposal, Morgan hopes the more limited $500 million grant program can be a door opener across the U.S.

Free community college has grown in popularity in recent years, with many states expected to join the fray in 2023. Massachusetts looks set to create a tuition-free college program this year, while Colorado may expand its existing program.

Still, there is a lot of ground to make up.

Biden's grant program could be a chance to start free college programs in states that haven't made headwinds thus far, Morgan said. Despite political leanings, state lawmakers are generally eager to accept federal dollars to fund local programs, so many governors will be keen to bid for Accelerated Success grants.

He expects the administration to prioritize states without any free college programs.

"I think this is a way for the administration on its own to help jump-start states that haven't considered [free college]," Morgan said.

Once a community college becomes free — even just for a year — it's hard to turn that faucet back off, he said. Enrollment numbers in 2024 may encourage state legislators to create their own tuition-free college programs in 2025 and beyond if this pilot proves successful.

"We're on the verge of a shift like what we had at the beginning of the 20th century to add an extra layer of risk-free education," Morgan said.