Free Community College Has Support, So Why Doesn’t It Happen?

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Despite what appeared to be broad support among Democratic lawmakers in Congress, tuition-free community college failed to get across the finish line and was ultimately cut from the Democrats’ social spending package, raising the question of whether a national free community college program — a core component of the Democratic Party's education ambitions — will ever get enacted.

Though two years of tuition-free community college fell out of the Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden promised to make it happen during his time in the White House, telling a town hall, "I’m going to get it done, and if I don't, I'll be sleeping alone for a long time," referring to First Lady Jill Biden, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. “I promise you — I guarantee it — we’re going to get free community college in the next several years, across the board.”

However, the recent unraveling of Biden’s free community college proposal in an effort to cut costs from the roughly $2 trillion spending package underscores the political and financial obstacles such a plan faces. Many in the higher education space still see a path forward for free community college, though it's less clear now than it was just a few months ago.

“While tuition-free community college did not ultimately make it into this package, it’s far from the end of the conversation. Providing a clear affordability guarantee for students remains a top priority for the Biden Administration and congressional Democrats,” said Michelle Dimino, an education senior policy advisor at Third Way, a public policy-focused think tank. 

Karen McCarthy, NASFAA’s vice president of public policy and federal relations, expressed disappointment that the investment in higher education was scaled back in the Build Back Better Act, but applauded the efforts to further invest in the federal Pell Grant program.

“We are optimistic about the remaining historic commitment of funding and hope it will become a building block for the future," she said.

Politically speaking, tuition-free community college has very little, if any, Republican support in Congress and any chance of such a measure being enacted would have to come with Democratic majorities in both chambers.

Even among Democrats, some key senators balked at the cost of the free community college proposal and few lawmakers prioritized keeping it in the package over other Democratic priorities, such as two years of free preschool, paid family leave, and climate change initiatives. 

With slim majorities in both the House and Senate, there was initial optimism that the time was right to pass a tuition-free community college measure, and the fact that it was not included in the infrastructure package was certainly a blow to the momentum, said Michele Streeter, the associate director of policy and advocacy at the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

“The conditions seemed right,” she said. “Will the stars align this way again? We don't know. Maybe not. But I do think there's ways to address these issues.”

Streeter pointed to the federal-state partnership at the heart of the free community college proposal as underscoring the importance of getting states to buy in and invest in higher education.

States would have had to opt into the partnership. For the first of the five-year program, the federal government would fund 100 percent of the grant, with funding decreasing by 5 percent  each year, meaning that in the final year of the program, the federal government would cover 80 percent of the cost of tuition-free community college and states would be on the hook for the remaining 20 percent. The total cost of the plan for the federal government was estimated to be about $45 billion for the first five years.

Additionally, each state would be given the same amount of funding from the federal government regardless of how much they currently charge for tuition — a hangup for some states. 

“One of the challenges [with free community college] broadly is that this is a fundamental reshaping of higher education policy toward a state-federal model,” said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). “This has been talked about for many years, but this is the first time it got real.”

From the state and local perspective, there is already a patchwork of programs that make college essentially free or very close to free for students. At least 25 states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, already have some form of free community college programs. And more were expected to adopt similar programs before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic put a strain on state and local budgets. 

Harnisch said Biden’s proposal making it this far before ultimately getting dropped is a sign that free community college is gaining momentum and is driving a culture shift regarding increased investment from the state level and a reimagining of the federal government’s role in higher education policy, both from funding a national free college plan and pushing states to play a larger role in addressing college affordability.

“This is something that policymakers are going to continue to explore in the years ahead,” he said. There’s a problem with the current approach of continuing to increase Pell Grants without addressing the state-federal partnership in higher education and state disinvestment in higher education. There’s concern about the old state-federal funding model of higher education and a real clarion call for reforms.”

Even before it was cut from the bill, Biden acknowledged the uphill climb such a sweeping measure would face.

"I don't know of any major change in American public policy that's occurred by a single piece of legislation," Biden said in October. "I doubt whether we'll get the entire funding for community colleges, but I'm not going to give up on community colleges as long as I'm president."

That thinking is leading advocates and proponents of free community college to press forward, spurred on by the progress made this year, with hope that the messaging behind free college will continue to pick up on both the national and state level.

Rosye Cloud, a senior leader at College Promise, a national organization that tracks and advocates for free college programs, said different promise programs across the country can look very different depending on where they are, and the messaging and marketing needs to reflect the culture, priorities and community it's in.

“The use of free college as a term, if it's helpful to the community, to get buy-in and to serve its purpose, we think that's great,” she said. “But if there's a different brand or a different message that is more inclusive and holistic for the community, we encourage programs to design around their beneficiaries and the desired audience.”

Others are noting positives in the spending package as concessions that still invest in higher education, particularly for low-income students. Dimino and Cloud welcome the increase in Pell Grants, noting students need more support to address housing and food insecurity, in addition to buying books and paying for other expenses.

“The Build Back Better Act’s higher education provisions — including an increase to the maximum Pell Grant and dedicated funding for college retention and completion — are both game-changers in their own right and will complement any future moves toward a federal tuition-free community college program,” Dimino said. 

Cloud also sees an underlying cultural shift that comes with progress on the free college front.

“Our hope is that there is a strong federal-state partnership that passes and that it creates that equity and inclusion across the country,” she said. “In the meantime, absent that, states, philanthropy, and local communities are coming together to create these models and they're working.”


Publication Date: 12/14/2021

James H | 12/16/2021 1:52:18 PM

It is a nice idea. Just like all college should be free, all health care should be free, everyone should have some form of shelter and end homelessness, etc. The reality is this falls to states to decide if they want to have some form of grant to help. Then if they do this for community colleges the 4 years colleges will also ask for the same thing. Right now we may never get the build back bill bouncing through congress and the senate. There are a hundred and one programs that feel their idea should be funded. Right now poorer college students will get fully funded for community college, rich write a check, the middle class are the ones who would benefit. Do we need to fund a middle class program or maybe health care is a better use of our scarce funds flowing through the Federal Government.

Ben R | 12/16/2021 8:26:27 AM

Free college is supposedly about reducing borrowing. However, to truly reduce borrowing, policymakers would need to reduce lending outside of community college. It is not enough to simply have free community college, which as mentioned above is already tuition free in many states. Costs and artificially high borrowing will not come down to earth as long as loans are freely given up to full cost of attendance for the full universe of institution types.

Robert W | 12/15/2021 9:23:17 AM

Why is it the Federal taxpayers' responsibility to make community college tuition free? The State taxpayers in their respective states can make this choice for thier public 2 year institutions and fund it with their tax dollars if they so desire. Just my personal thoughts.

Bob Walker

David S | 12/14/2021 3:31:07 PM

I agree that money isn't the only thing at play here, Peter. Putting together a new funding model would be complicated and would require people thinking in different ways. That said, I think there's pretty much universal agreement that the higher ed funding models we have in place are far from effective in many ways, so let's put some smart people to work creating new models. It's time.

Peter G | 12/14/2021 12:9:15 PM

There's going to be a tendency to oversimplify this, but Harnisch is right - this is a far more complicated shift than it sounds because the underlying structure and economics of even the community college sector (much less higher ed overall) is incredibly complex, with a tapestry of existing funding models in place across the states.

The money/cost really isn't the only question here, it's how would you build an effective federal system on top of a set of institutions that have evolved to very different places over the past six decades in terms of their orientation, and moreso their economics and funding models.

David S | 12/14/2021 11:13:10 AM

Think about the thought process behind a member of Congress voting for two multi-trillion dollar tax cuts that almost solely benefit those who didn't need any help AND a 3/4 of a trillion dollar Pentagon budget and then calling free community college unaffordable. It's all about priorities.

For 4 years we had a Secretary of Education who in her farewell speech to the financial aid community said "the 2/3 of Americans who don't attend college shouldn't pay for the 1/3 who do." While she is no longer in that position, that mindset is not gone. There are people in important positions in Washington who will NEVER make education a priority. If you want to change this and any of them represent you, work hard to elect someone else.

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