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The uncertain future of free community college

The initiative could have helped millions of students, but it wasn’t a top priority in Biden’s spending package.

Students on the Los Angeles City College campus as some returned to in-class instruction on August 30.
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s promise to offer tuition-free community college to students across the country — a plan he said would boost the middle class and help the United States compete with other countries — fell through late last month as his administration scaled back its sweeping $3.5 trillion social safety net bill to $1.75 trillion.

The plan would have spent $45.5 billion for states to offer two years of free community college tuition to every student for the next five years.

College tuition has risen dramatically in the past few decades. The average student receiving the Pell Grant, a need-based federal program for low-income students, could only afford 41 percent of two-year public colleges, and just 23 percent of four-year public colleges, in the 2018-19 school year.

And that’s before the fees, books, and room and board expenses students must cover, or the struggles that community college students face to stay in school as they battle housing and food insecurity, among other challenges.

Despite evidence that free tuition for community college can combat the affordability gap and lead to higher college enrollment and, ultimately, higher wages for low-income students and students of color, the plan had few champions in the face of other Democratic priorities. The bill will likely still include tuition assistance through expanded need-based financial aid, funding for historically Black colleges and universities, and money for workforce development programs, according to experts who spoke to Vox.

But the result illustrated a big problem for free college in America: Among most Democrats, the idea might be popular, but it’s just not a top priority when up against the likes of child care initiatives like universal preschool and the child tax credit.

Biden maintains that free college is one of his administration’s top agenda items. “I promise you — I guarantee it — we’re going to get free community college in the next several years, across the board,” Biden said at a CNN town hall last week, after the first reports that the plan was axed.

For now, free-tuition community college will just have to wait. But some advocates remain optimistic.

“It’s only the beginning of this movement, and so far it’s been robust,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a political science professor at Grand Valley State University, researcher at the Upjohn Institute, and author of the book The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Access, Equity, and Prosperity.

Community college enrollment has plummeted during the pandemic

About one-third of all college students in America attend community colleges, which, since their creation in the early 20th century, have come to mostly serve working-class students — as well as students of color who are underserved by traditional four-year colleges.

In 2018, 55 percent of all Hispanic undergraduates, 44 percent of Black undergraduates, 45 percent of Asian undergraduates and 41 percent of white undergraduates were enrolled at community colleges. From 2015 to 2016, about 37 percent of students at two-year community colleges came from families earning less than $20,000 a year.

The affordability gap is only widening. A report from 2017 by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that students from households that earned less than $69,000 a year could hardly afford to attend 1 to 5 percent of colleges in a pool of more than 2,000, even taking financial aid into account. Students from households making more than $160,000 a year could afford about 90 percent of the schools in the pool.

For 15 years, states and localities have led a grassroots effort to experiment with free tuition college programs, viewed as one solution to alleviate the burden of rising costs; at the same time, there’s been a national discussion about college affordability. In 2015, former President Barack Obama called for legislation to make two years of college free; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has called to make all public colleges and universities free.

Nearly 20 states, from Tennessee to Michigan to California, already have some version of a free tuition college program, all developed within the last decade.

Tennessee was the first state to create one, Tennessee Promise, in 2015. After the program was created, community college enrollment increased, and the percentage of Black and Hispanic students at the state’s community colleges also increased.

These results have mostly held up, according to a recent report from the Tennessee comptroller’s office. The college-going rate increased from 58.6 percent to 64.4 percent between 2014 and 2015, in the first year of the program. In the three following years, the college-going rate decreased to 61.8 percent. The number of students who attended college in Tennessee from 2014 to 2017 increased by 15.3 percent, or about 5,400 students.

But between 2017 and 2019, the number of students who attended college decreased by 2.3 percent. Researchers concluded that the rise in the college-going rate is a result of the Promise program, meaning the initiative has a positive impact on enrollment — though not as significant as in its inaugural year. The same trend exists for retention at community colleges in Tennessee as a result of the program.

“It really was the sort of shock to the system that we needed in Tennessee and we discovered that the most vulnerable populations — low-income students, students of color, students who thought that college was never an option for them — are benefiting,” said Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of TNAchieves, a scholarship and mentoring organization that brings high school students into the Tennessee Promise pipeline. “Going to college became the culture in Tennessee and we were talking about going to college with students in a way that we had never done before, and that is the magic.”

Other research shows that the benefits of free community college tuition outweigh the costs across the board: The programs contribute to higher completion rates for students and lower student loan default rates.

One randomized trial in Milwaukee that tracked students’ high school, college, and life outcomes for eight years found that free college enticed students who wouldn’t have otherwise gone to college and increased graduation rates. The researchers also conducted a cost-benefit analysis of multiple free college programs including in Kalamazoo, Michigan; Knox County, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Nebraska’s statewide program and concluded that the positive effect on college outcomes and future earnings is “much larger than the cost to society as a whole.”

Biden’s plan would have tried to entice more states into offering tuition-free college.

“Right now, whether you get to go to community college or a four-year college tuition-free depends on where you live,” Miller-Adams said.

States would have had to opt into the partnership. For the first year of the program the federal government would fund 100 percent of the grant, with funding decreasing by 5 percent each year. By the final year of the program, the federal government would cover 80 percent of the bill and states would pick up the remaining 20 percent. Each state would be given the same amount of funding regardless of how much they currently charge for tuition.

“The federal program would have at least offered the opportunity of a tuition-free path to community college to everyone in the nation. It would have been tremendously equalizing,” Miller-Adams said.

What’s next for tuition-free college

What states without free tuition programs are missing, DeAlejandro said, is the culture shift that emphasizes “college matters and that every student is college material.”

But ultimately, as the bill was put together, there were other priorities that were higher, like universal pre-kindergarten. Biden needs the votes of all 50 Democrats in the Senate. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have slowed the progress of negotiations. Manchin said he supports means-tested programs and has said he wouldn’t back free tuition community college for all students.

In the short term, what free tuition advocates have to look forward to are concessions like an increase in the maximum Pell grants, which help low-income students attend college, and funding for HBCUs, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) — measures that matter, but don’t send the same kind of clear, impactful message as “free college.” The administration will invest in community college workforce programs, industry training, and apprenticeships, according to the latest framework, though specific funding commitments are yet to be announced. On the broader education front, lawmakers also plan to expand preschool access for six years for 6 million children.

DeAlejandro welcomes the increase in Pell grants. Students need more support to address housing insecurity and food insecurity, and to buy their books. Rural students in Tennessee can drive 30-40 minutes one way to get to class, so the doubling of Pell grants also helps out with gas money, she said.

With the rise in online learning, students have even tried to take classes using their phones, an obstacle that could be addressed with more Pell grant money, among others.

“I hope this doubling of Pell also comes with a message from states and local communities that we will work to ensure that every student has access to completing the FAFSA, because it’s intimidating and not always easy to complete,” DeAlejandro said.

Experts also hope that national leaders can recognize the importance of messaging for the next stage of the free college fight.

“What we’ve learned from Tennessee is that a very clear and simple message that college is affordable, and even tuition-free, brings a lot of people into the pipeline, rather than saying, ‘Oh, hey, you might be eligible for Pell grants,’” Miller-Adams said.

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