Biden Pitches Free Community College, Pell Grant Boost in Infrastructure Package

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Pell GrantCost of Attendance

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include details from President Joe Biden's address to a joint session of Congress.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday released the second part of his sweeping infrastructure proposal, calling for making two years of community college tuition-free for all, regardless of income, among other higher education investments. 

The proposal includes the most significant higher education measures to date from the Biden administration and comes on the heels of top congressional Democrats releasing various free college proposals, signaling the issue is a legislative priority for lawmakers.

His American Families Plan calls for $109 billion in funding for two years of free community college tuition to ensure “every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate” and $80 billion for the federal Pell Grant program to increase the maximum award by $1,400 from the current maximum of $6,495.

"While nearly 7 million students depend on Pell Grants, the grant has not kept up with the rising cost of college. Over the last 50 years, the value of Pell Grants has plummeted. The maximum grant went from covering nearly 80 percent of the cost of a four-year college degree to under 30 percent — leading millions of low-income students to take out debt to finance their education," a fact sheet detailing the plan states.

On Wednesday night, Biden detailed the plan in an address to a joint session of Congress and to the American people watching at home, saying making community college tuition-free will change the dynamic and set the country up for success in the coming years. He argued that 12 years of universal public schooling simply doesn’t suffice to keep up in a changing, globalized economy. 

He added that the plan “will increase Pell Grants and investment in historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges, and minority-serving institutions,” saying those institutions don’t have the sizable endowments compared to others and need the additional support. 

To make tuition-free community college a reality, Biden said his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who teaches at Northern Virginia Community College, will be “deeply involved in leading an effort.”

The $1,400 increase to the Pell Grant serves as a “down payment” on Biden’s campaign commitment to double the maximum award. Additionally, those in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, commonly referred to as Dreamers, would also be eligible to receive the Pell Grant under Biden’s proposal. 

While thin on details of the exact funding mechanisms, the plan alludes to states having the choice to opt in to provide students with tuition-free college for two years, noting that “if all states, territories, and Tribes participate, about 5.5 million students would pay $0 in tuition and fees.”

The plan also calls for $39 billion to subsidize tuition for students from families earning less than $125,000 who attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), a tribally controlled university, or minority-serving institution (MSI).

To increase college retention and completion rates, Biden is proposing a $62 billion grant program for completion and retention activities at colleges and universities that serve high numbers of low-income students, particularly community colleges, according to the proposal.

NASFAA in a statement welcomed the increased investment in postsecondary education.

“We’re excited to have an administration that is championing an investment in education that acknowledges that postsecondary education is a critical component of our economic recovery and competitiveness,” said NASFAA President and CEO Justin Draeger. “We welcome the proposed ‘down payment’ on doubling the Pell Grant program, which has not kept up with inflationary college costs. This movement is long overdue and we’ll be putting all of our effort into working with the administration to iron out details and make these proposed investments a reality.”

NASFAA has also been active urging lawmakers this session to double the maximum Pell Grant award, highlighting that such a move “will boost college enrollment, improve graduation rates, and honor the history and value of these grants as the keystone federal investment in college affordability.”

The free community college component of the plan is believed to be based, at least in part, on a proposal reintroduced this week by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Reps. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. 

Their proposal calls for creating partnership between the federal government and states and tribes to help them waive resident tuition and fees for two years of community and technical college programs for eligible students where the federal government would match $3 for every $1 invested by the state.

With a roughly $1.8 trillion price tag, the White House says its plan will help boost and stabilize the economy and lead to job growth. While a high school degree used to be a stable path to a well paying job, that is less reliably the case these days, the plan notes, pointing to the fact that 70% of jobs today are held by those with more than a high school degree.

“American workers need and deserve additional support to build their skills, increase their earnings, remain competitive, and share in the benefits of the new economy,” the plan states. “President Biden’s plan will expand access to affordable postsecondary education, laying the groundwork for innovation and inclusive economic growth for all Americans.”

Absent from the proposal was any mention of student loan forgiveness. Currently, payments and interest accrual on federally-held student loans are paused through September, when the federal forbearance period put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic is set to come to an end. Biden has expressed support for forgiving $10,000 of student loan debt for each borrower, but has said he would like to see it come in the form of Congress passing legislation.

Biden recently asked Department of Education (ED) Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a memo on the president’s legal authority to cancel student debt through executive action.

The plan released Wednesday is the second installment in Biden’s massive legislative package attempting to reshape the country’s infrastructure, education, and child care landscape. The package comes on the heels of the nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that was signed into law last month.

While Biden has repeatedly said he would like to advance his legislative agenda with bipartisan support, Republicans to date have been far apart on negotiations, balking at the price tag of Biden’s proposals.

A framework previously released by Republicans in response to the first part of Biden’s infrastructure package called for less than $600 billion in total investments without specifically calling for any improvements to community college infrastructure.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, in a statement decried the exorbitant government spending associated with the proposal.

“Child care and postsecondary education need reform, but we cannot spend our way out of this problem,” she said. “Republicans stand at the ready to work with Democrats on a bipartisan proposal that delivers real solutions for families.”

In its current form, the White House’s proposal faces long odds in Congress, even with narrow Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. At least 10 Republican senators would have to support the legislation, in addition to every Democrat, to overcome a Senate filibuster, though Democrats could attempt to pass the legislation through budget reconciliation, requiring only a simple majority.

Democrats have yet to commit to using budget reconciliation for this package and to do so would need the support of every Democratic senator.

Murray in a statement said she would work with Biden and the White House in an effort to get the free community college plan signed into law. 

“I’m so glad to see that President Biden understands that in order to build back an economy that works for everyone, we need to ensure all students can get the education and skills they need succeed,” she said. “Providing free community college is [a] bold first step to make college more affordable and provide students pathways to higher education and workforce training without debt.”

Biden is set to present the details of the proposal Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress. 


Publication Date: 4/28/2021

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