The free community college tuition proposal isn’t completely dead, but it would take an unprecedented turnaround for it to survive President Joe Biden’s scaled-back rebuilding plan for America.
“There will be something for higher education, but it probably won’t be the free community college,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Chair of the Progressive Caucus, told reporters on Tuesday. “It looks like that’s probably going to be out.”
Those words and the now distant promise of millions in relief for primarily two-year institutions and students stunned community college leaders, who are clinging to the hope that some or all of it can be salvaged.
“We are disappointed to hear reports of the exclusion of the America’s College Promise Act from the Build Back Better Act,” Walter Bumphus, President of the American Association of Community Colleges, and Jee Hang Lee, acting president and CEO of its Board of Trustees, said in a statement. “It is not too late for Congress and the President to forever transform and improve America’s higher education system. Community college leaders urge Congress to seize this crucial moment to benefit students, communities, and local economies now and for generations to come.”
But Democrat leaders, focused on rescuing the plan while having to knock back more than $2 trillion in future spending, are instead targeting saving portions of the child tax credit, climate change and other social programs, as well as expanding Medicare.
What would be lost if free tuition is not included? Roughly $100 billion in transformational help for non-traditional students and workforce development in fields where labor shortages exist, from healthcare and first responders to teachers.
“Community colleges provide relevant and affordable access to higher education and career training opportunities for nearly 12 million Americans each year,” Bumphus and Lee said.” This legislation would mark a historic federal investment in ensuring these opportunities remain affordable and accessible.”
America’s Promise, with or without the inclusion of assistance to two-year institutions, will affect a wide range of students. Of those who attend each year, according to data from the AACC:
- 29% of all community college undergrads are first-generation
- 20% of students with disabilities
- 15% are single parents
- 5% have served in the military
- 9% are non-U.S. citizens.
- 44% are older students (22+)
- 65% attend institutions part-time
Two of the most significant groups impacted would be women, who represent more than 50% of students pursuing associate’s degrees and certificates, and students of color. Latinx, Blacks and Native Americans are as likely or more likely to attend two-year institutions than four-year colleges.
“It would particularly benefit those who are low-income and traditionally underrepresented and who have been disproportionately negatively impacted by the pandemic and forced to forgo college altogether,” the two AACC leaders said.
There is also a huge untapped portion of the U.S. population looking for opportunities that would be affected, highlighted by declining enrollments the past year.
“Knowing that nearly one-third of the nation’s high school graduates never attend college, America’s College Promise would remove barriers to the higher education necessary in today’s global economy and provide greater opportunities to earn a college degree or learn the skills needed to obtain a job,” they said.