Lawmakers Introduce Legislation to Implement President Obama’s Community College Proposal

By Stephen Payne, Policy & Federal Relations Staff

After President Obama unveiled his community college access plan in January, lawmakers in Congress are now hashing out the details to make that proposal a reality.

On Wednesday, Democratic members of Congress from both the House and the Senate released the “America’s College Promise Act,” which matches the president’s call for free tuition at community colleges for the first two years, but goes further by adding tuition reduction for low-income students in their first two years at minority-serving institutions.

“We all believe that every student in America deserves a fair shot at a higher education and a path to the middle class,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate said in a press call. “All students deserve the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed without drowning in student debt.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced the measure in the House along with Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA), Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA). Baldwin is championing the measure in the Senate with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The legislation is widely supported with 61 cosponsors in the House and 10 in the Senate, but all of those supporters are Democrats, which may spell trouble for the bill in the Republican-controlled Congress. “Giving away free tuition strikes me as something we cannot afford,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in a 60 Minutes interview earlier this year.

If implemented and with all states participating, the bill’s authors claim that over nine million students could benefit, with the average full-time community college student saving about $3,800 per year. Scott explained that aid provided to students at four-year minority-serving institutions would “flow to students in this program before any Pell Grant they may be eligible for, so… they can use their Pell Grant to help displace some of those living expenses and other costs outside of tuition and fees.”

“Ensuring all students have a fair shot at accessing a quality post-secondary education remains a priority for financial aid administrators nationwide, NASFAA President Justin Draeger said. “A bill of this magnitude represents a grand gesture towards college accessibility,” he added.

The Obama administration has already endorsed the measure, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praising the legislation’s opportunity “to make two-years of college as universal as high school was a century ago.”

The total cost of the new program amounts to $90 billion over 10 years, $30 billion more than the president’s request, but the federal government would not be the only one footing the bill. Similar to the president’s plan, states would be incentivized to contribute funds through a federal matching program where the federal government would invest three dollars for every one dollar contributed by the state. The price tag may prove to be the real sticking point as lawmakers continue to squabble over the strained federal budget.

The full text of the legislation can be found on Baldwin’s website.


Publication Date: 7/9/2015

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