By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden lamented the fact that tuition-free community college was removed from the Build Back Better (BBB) legislation still in the midst of negotiations in Congress, but reinforced the Biden administration’s focus on college affordability — and community colleges specifically — as she headlined the Community College National Legislative Summit, hosted by the Association of Community College Trustees.
Biden, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, was a vocal advocate for tuition-free community college to make it into the Democrats’ social spending package, President Biden’s first signature piece of legislation. However, in an effort to cut costs and attempt to get all Democratic senators on board, the community college piece was cut from the bill late last year, much to the dismay of the first lady.
“Like you, I was disappointed,” she told the audience of college leadership, advocates, faculty, and students. “Because — like you — these aren’t just bills or budgets to me. We know what they mean for real people. For our students.”
Though it was first indicated in December, Biden’s speech Monday served as public confirmation that free community college was out of the BBB, as negotiations stalled out likely due to the package including too many competing priorities, such as health care and climate measures. The first lady vowed that she and President Biden would continue pushing for the initiative.
“Joe doesn't quit. He doesn't give up,” she said. “He is keeping his promise to rebuild our middle class and he knows that community colleges do just that.”
The tuition-free community college plan would have had states opt into a federal-state partnership to fund the measure. For the first of the five-year program, the federal government would fund 100% of the grant to cover tuition for all community college attendees, with funding decreasing by 5% each year, meaning that in the final year of the program, the federal government would cover 80% of the cost of tuition-free community college and states would be on the hook for the remaining 20%. The total cost of the plan for the federal government was estimated to be about $45 billion for the first five years.
In her remarks, Biden said she and the president would continue to fight for tuition-free community college and other measures that would benefit students, including increases to the federal Pell Grant, allocating money for non-tuition expenses such as books, and ensuring all students have access to high speed wireless internet.
“We’ve seen how fragile that grasp on a middle-class life can be — how our students struggle to pay their bills and buy their books,” she said.
She added that the debate over which measures to include in BBB — and ultimately the demise of tuition-free community college — underscored the difficulty of both governing and legislating.
“We know what they mean for real people, for our students, and it was a real lesson in human nature that some people just don’t get that,” the first lady said.
Biden also touted the billions in federal funding that was directed toward community colleges and their students as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which provided schools and students emergency aid through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF).
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona also spoke at the event, highlighting the new updates to the College Scorecard that the Department of Education (ED) announced Monday.
Before taking questions from audience members, Cardona stressed the Biden administration’s commitment to community colleges and the important role they play in training the workforce of the future.
He also touched on the various higher education initiatives that the department has undertaken in the past year, discharging more than $15 billion in student loan debt, overhauling the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), and strengthening protections in place for borrowers.
“It's really important that we address the root of the issue … so five years from now, we're not in the same position,” Cardona said. “We're proud of the work that we're doing to fix policies that were voted on but never enacted. In fact, they were implemented in ways that didn't keep students at the center. We're going to change that.”
Publication Date: 2/8/2022