The $3T question: Is help coming for community college students?

Inclusion of free tuition and supports in the next stimulus proposal would provide assistance to those struggling to afford and receive a quality education.
By: | March 25, 2021
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According to several news reports, free tuition at community colleges likely will be included in a recovery proposal being worked on by President Joe Biden’s team – part of a $3 trillion “Build Back Better” plan that will focus on improving infrastructure, education and quality of life for Americans.

If it is, and if it is approved, needed relief would come for millions who choose part-time or full-time two-year paths of higher education, and likely boost future pools of underserved students.

The challenges were emphasized during the presidential campaign in Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Plan for Education Beyond High School, who noted “we haven’t invested enough in making sure community colleges can reach all the Americans who could benefit from their programs, or improve their quality and completion rate.”

While 17 states offer some form of free tuition for students, many do not. According to educationdata.org, the average total cost still hovers at just over $10,000. And affordability is just one factor. Support services, training and infrastructure are others that have been highlighted in Biden plans as potential game-changers to getting students enrolled and earning degrees.

Last fall, the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas-Austin performed a study on the many impacts and disparities that exist among two-year students.

Released Thursday, it noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened inequities that already existed: more than a third of female students reported their financial situations had worsened since last March and a quarter of all students 25-and-over have struggled with cost. Couple that with the precipitous drop in enrollment of first-time students at two-year colleges reported by the National Clearinghouse Student Research Center, and the time may have arrived for national assistance.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated the already typical struggles that community college students face in juggling classes with work and family obligations,” said Linda García, Executive Director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. “Now, more than ever, these students need our support.”

The obstacles facing students

Biden’s $3 trillion plan is currently being developed and may be split into two parts, according to a report from the New York Times. The first part is expected to tackle infrastructure, including enhanced 5G and broadband internet, something students of color and those from lower-income and rural communities have struggled to attain since the pandemic began last March. The Center’s study, in fact, showed that 25% of community college students had internet access that was not always reliable.

The second part is expected to include education, including help for K-12 schools. Beyond connectivity, community college students have battled to balance course work with jobs and child care while trying to cover the costs and expenses of education, housing and feeding their families. Some of their situations are dire:

  • More than 75% of those who were surveyed before the pandemic said that if their financial situations worsened, they would consider withdrawing from community colleges.
  • Nearly 50% pre-pandemic said that childcare or caring for a family member also might force them to drop out. Student-parents comprise nearly 40% of the community college population.
  • More than a quarter of Hispanic, Black and Native American students report that they have struggled this year to complete homework because of a lack of child care. Those same subgroups also were more likely than their White counterparts to be unable to afford college.
  • Female students also reported more barriers than males in their quests to remain at community colleges because of bleaker financial pictures and heavier burdens for child care. More than 40% of women who have children who depend on them say their situation has worsened since the pandemic began.

And yet, despite all the struggles, researchers at the Center say 57% of students are unaware that their colleges provide services and supports that can help them.

What is in the Biden plan

The inclusion of community colleges – and acceptance by Congress – of the Biden plan would provide financial and support lifelines.

The President has said his proposal for community colleges would be a “first-dollar program, meaning that students will be able to use their Pell grants, state aid, and other aid to help them cover expenses beyond tuition and fees.” Biden and Harris have said they also want to provide incentive packages to states that offer specific wraparound services for “veterans, single parents, low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities.” The plan also not only would cover first-time high school graduating students but adults 25 and over.

They also want to help create an emergency grant program, similar to ones that have been developed at colleges and universities during the pandemic, to assist  students who are in peril of dropping out for financial reasons.

In the plan, the federal government would be responsible for 75% (and 95% for Tribal community colleges that serve low-income students), while states would pick up the rest of the tab.

The questions now are: will community colleges be included, when will it happen and will it have any chance of approval?