Congressional Democrats Introduce New Free Community College Proposal

Free college is on the national agenda again, this time with a federal-state partnership proposal to cover community college tuition.
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Published on October 24, 2023
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  • The America's College Promise Act would waive two years of tuition at U.S. community colleges.
  • This proposal would also subsidize the cost of education for low-income students attending historically Black colleges and universities.
  • House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member Robert Scott is an original co-sponsor of the bill.
  • It's the latest of several attempts to pass legislation creating national tuition-free community college.

Free community college is back on the menu, but whether there's widespread appetite for it in Congress remains to be seen.

Democratic lawmakers from the House of Representatives and Senate filed the America's College Promise Act of 2023 on Thursday. The proposal, among other things, would fund two years of tuition-free community college at public institutions for all Americans.

It's the latest in a myriad of attempts to pass nationwide legislation for free community college.

U.S. Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia, the ranking House Education and the Workforce Committee member, is one of the bill's original co-sponsors. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico is the primary sponsor in the House, while U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin introduced the bill in the Senate.

Thus far, all co-sponsors are Democrats.

"Community colleges play a unique and vital role in providing students access to a quality postsecondary degree," Scott said in a statement. "Regrettably, the chronic underfunding of community colleges is jeopardizing their ability to support their students and communities. The America's College Promise Act is a major investment in expanding opportunities for students and building back a better economy."

What Would the America's College Promise Act Do?

The America's College Promise Act's most noteworthy proposal would establish a federal-state partnership to waive tuition and fees for two years of community college or technical college programs.

The federal government would foot 100% of the bill for the program's first year, and that would gradually decrease until the federal government paid 80% in the fifth year. It would continue to pay 80% in perpetuity after that, with each participating state covering the remaining costs.

Eligible students include anyone enrolled at least half-time in a community college. Students can only take advantage of the program if they would have normally qualified for in-state tuition at that community college, which may allow many undocumented students to take advantage of the program.

College Promise would also waive two years of tuition and fees for eligible students who attend a tribal college or university (TCU).

The TCU waiver applies only to two-year programs, according to the bill's text, or TCUs that primarily award associate degrees.

The College Promise Act would establish an additional grant program to fund the costs of low-income students pursuing a degree at any minority-serving institution. That includes historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs).

According to the bill, HBCUs can apply for grants to "waive or reduce tuition and fees" for a student's first 60 credits at the university.

Only HBCUs where at least 35% of enrolled students are low-income are eligible.

Free Community College Popular at State Level

Free community college is already a reality for many students across the country.

Over half the states in the U.S. offer some form of free community college. Most state programs, however, have some limits. Some use age limits. Others provide only merit-based scholarships that waive tuition and fees at public colleges and universities.

In recent years, there has been a push to create a nationwide free college program.

President Joe Biden has tried repeatedly to push a free college program through Congress in various budget proposals. His initial 2024 budget proposal listed two proposals, including a $90 billion plan that would have offered two years of free community college to all college students, including those benefiting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Others have attempted, but failed, to push through more comprehensive free college proposals.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent representing Vermont, and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat representing Washington, introduced the College for All Act in their respective chambers in June.

That bill would not only eliminate tuition for all community colleges but also pay the tuition for low- and middle-income students attending any public institution. Like the America's College Promise Act, this federal-state partnership would eventually see each state pay 20% of the annual costs after five years.