Jill Biden says free community college is out of Build Back Better, so what’s next?

But the First Lady says she and the President will keep fighting to improve student outcomes and workforce pathways.
By: | February 7, 2022
The promise of free community college officially hit a dead end on Monday as Dr. Jill Biden confirmed that the proposal will not be a part of the Build Back Better plan, which is facing numerous roadblocks to passage in the Senate. (Photo by Chris Burt)

The First Lady made the comments at the Community College National Legislative Summit in Washington, the same event at which she exuded so much hope last year, armed with an overarching strategy from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to help boost the sector and individuals in need.

“One year ago, I told this group that Joe was going to fight for community colleges,” she said. “Since then we’ve made some incredible progress. The American Rescue Plan put billions into community colleges so they could support their students through financial aid, childcare support and wraparound services. The bipartisan infrastructure law passed, creating millions of jobs along with potential opportunities to trade for in-demand skills. But Joe has also had to make compromises. Congress hasn’t passed the Build Back Better legislation yet. And free community college is no longer a part of that package.”

The original proposal from the Biden Administration called for more than $45 billion to cover two years of tuition at community colleges that would have been funded by both the federal government and states. However, the weight of costs of the nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better plan has struggled not only to support, even from some Democrats. It is now in limbo and has been streamlined significantly.

The First Lady confirmed that community college exclusion from the plan was personally devastating, given her years-long work in education, as an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College, and through her efforts in fighting for students on the federal level. “We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” she said. “Still, I was disappointed because, like you, these aren’t just bills or budgets. We know what they mean for real people, for our students. We’ve seen how entire towns can be transformed when community colleges and private companies work together to train students for jobs that are desperately needed. We’ve seen how fragile that grasp on middle-class life can be, how our students struggle to pay their bills and buy their books.”

And she noted the cost of not providing that extra layer of support to students in one line: “One day, that student is just gone, and it breaks my heart.”

Despite the setback, she was adamant about the importance of continuing to push the agenda for the future of students and future of the country.

“Build Back Better isn’t just a piece of legislation. And it’s certainly not a football to pass or pivot. It’s about helping community colleges train our workforce with 21st-century skills,” she said. “It’s about supporting students with tutoring and childcare and transportation. It’s about pioneering the new climate jobs that will lead us into the future. And it’s an investment in our kids with universal preschool, laying the foundation to learn and succeed for the rest of their lives.

“We take the hard-won victories, and we keep pushing for the change we need. It’s not flashy, but with work and persistence, with each person telling their own story and speaking their own truth, we will win the progress our students deserve.”

What’s at stake

There are more than 1,000 community colleges in the U.S. serving more than 11 million students, though enrollments have fallen dramatically since the start of the pandemic. The sector lost more than 10% in the fall of 2020 and fell another 3.4% in 2021, far outpacing the declines at the four-year college level.


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What is most notable within that data, provided by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, are the deep impacts those drops have had on communities of color, lower-income students and even men at two-year institutions:

  • Enrollment of men plummeted by more than 15% in 2020
  • Enrollments of students attending low-income and high-poverty schools each dropped by more than double digits, while students from higher-income and more affluent areas did not suffer nearly the same setbacks
  • There has been a significant lack of mobility, with lateral and reverse transfers falling 20% and 17%, respectively, at two-year institutions
  • The percentage of adult learners declined by 30% year-over-year from fall of 2020 to 2021
  • Students who have stopped out largely haven’t returned

Community colleges not only have struggled with enrollments but also with retention, with numbers checking in at less than 40%. The hope was that Build Back Better’s infusion would get more students to sign on and help retain them – alleviating some of the financial burdens that prevent them from starting and continuing their studies.

“There are a lot of reasons that I wanted Joe to run for president,” Jill Biden said. “But one of the biggest was because I knew that no one would work harder for my students and yours. He knows that you are our greatest resource and our best investment. He will keep fighting for us.”

Community colleges can be a linchpin for both innovation and in solving the national shortages of workers in many fields. For example, assembly, repair and maintenance programs lost huge numbers of enrollees at the same time that the supply side was struggling to meet demand. Though healthcare and information technology held study, many Classification of Instructional Program areas saw declines.

“The community college sector has a much larger story to tell … It needs to be told,” said Rick Torres, National Student Clearinghouse President and CEO “The community college sector is a force for learner-worker enablement. Proactivity and measurement will be key to evolving the sector to its full potential.”

As non-traditional credentials outpace postsecondary options, it is imperative for community colleges to continue to bridge gaps by working with industry partners and states to increase those career paths. To assist some students financially, they should look at the potential to have Pell Grants work for atypical credential paths and consider shorter-form completion for them. They should continue to be flexible in the types of course modalities offered. And they should reach out to those who have stopped out to try to bring them back because there are more than 35 million students with credits who have not gotten credentials, certificates or degrees.