We need a truly free-for-all community college

When Joe Biden became the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, he sat down with runner-up Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and created the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force to merge some of the most popular policy proposals. most popular of Sanders in Biden’s relatively moderate report. Platform. Co-chaired by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and former Secretary of State John Kerry, the task force produced 110 pages of progressive policy recommendations, ranging from establishing a federal minimum wage $15 and universal health care, to the call for better federal oversight of policing and the adoption of a climate framework similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal.”

Working with progressives has also pushed Biden to take a slightly bolder stance on the higher education affordability crisis. While Sanders’ campaign pressure in the 2020 primaries to cancel student debt and make public universities and colleges free was a major mobilizing force among young voters, Biden promised to cancel $10,000 in federal debt from student loan per person and making both two- and four-year public colleges and universities free for students with household incomes below $125,000.

These policies went further than some expected, but they were not revolutionary. After all, broad bipartisan support already existed for a broader approach than that proposed by Biden: About 63% of Americans (and, notably, 52% of Republicans under 50 who have not graduated from college) think that public colleges and universities should be made free for all American students. And advocacy groups have urged President Biden to pass a bicameral resolution by Democratic lawmakers in February 2021 to cancel $50,000 in student loans for federal borrowers.

But forget to go further; Biden has so far failed to secure even that bare minimum after the legislative deadlock caused by Senate Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. In a town hall chat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper last October, Biden pledged to implement a tuition-free community college, adding that “if I don’t, I’ll be sleeping alone for a long time” – a referring to his wife, Jill Biden, who teaches English at a community college. She’s since had to swallow her words for him because later last fall Biden bowed to pressure and slashed a proposal from his Build Back Better bill that would have invested $45.5 billion in creating from a tuition-free community college. Addressing a room full of community college administrators and advocates at a conference in Washington, DC, earlier this year, the First Lady lamented that “Joe has. . . had to make compromises.

The entire bill has now been in limbo for about six months, and the fact that the tuition-free community college has been so quickly derailed is a particularly sad testament to Congress’ failure to make even the most elementary and most popular in the future of young people. . By now, many young progressives are confirmed in their skepticism that Biden’s campaign promises would result in immediate, concrete, and comprehensive reform of higher education.

If the Democratic Party seeks to prove them wrong and truly lives up to its longstanding belief in the right to an accessible and affordable public education, that would help reverse the wealth gap ever growing in this country, it must find a politically feasible way. enshrine student debt relief and tuition-free college proposals in law at the federal level.

And community colleges, in particular, are an essential starting point.


With more than one in three of all undergraduate students enrolled in community college courses in the 2019-2020 academic year, community colleges remain a crucial pathway for millions of students to work toward a degree. . Compared to four-year institutions, community colleges disproportionately serve students of color (especially black and Latino students), students with disabilities, older students, ESL learners, full-time students partially employed and low-income students whose families earn less than $50,000. a year. Although research shows that community college students are less likely to take on debt and those who owe a much smaller amount than students attending four-year institutions, they are more likely to default on loans than they contract or give up. continue to be able to pay living expenses, or both.

Yet some moderate conservatives and liberals continue to trivialize the impact a tuition-free community college would have on students, attempting to argue that a two-year education is “already free” in the majority of states, or so cheap that having the state or federal government pay for it is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

That the tuition-free community college has gone off the rails so quickly is a particularly sad testament to the failure of Congress to make even the most basic and widely popular investments in the future of young people.

But the reality is that a tuition-free education isn’t entirely “free” unless it takes into account all the other costs of attendance, from textbooks and transportation to rent, food, medical care. health and other basic necessities. Many community college students, nearly half of whom live paycheck to paycheck, are just one unexpected expense away from being forced to drop out. The difference of a few thousand dollars saved or lost can mean everything to the ability of millions of students to stay in school and graduate.

Although tuition is being waived for many community college students through a combination of federal need-based Pell Grants (limited to $6,495 per student, per year, in 2021-22) and managed College Promise programs by the state or locally that help cover some or all of a student’s tuition, this patchwork approach leaves much to be desired. For example, not all College Promise programs have the same impact on affordability. There are two main models: the “first dollar”, in which students can first draw on the program and then federal aid, if necessary; and “last dollar,” which requires students to use federal grant money before turning to the program to cover the remaining balance.

As the Association of Community College Trustees explains, a College Promise “first dollar” program “covers the direct costs of being a student and has the potential to reduce the associated costs of being a student, such as transportation. , child care, school supplies and other expenses. In other words, a student can save more of their Pell grant money to use for other cost-of-living expenses under this model. Unfortunately, California was the only state to implement such a statewide program, while in the nineteen “last dollar” states – six of which only provide assistance to students in specific high-demand programs – low-income students are forced to bear many other college-related costs on their own.

Making the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) a prerequisite for free tuition under College Promise programs also unfairly excludes undocumented students from receiving that aid. While some states, such as Washington and Oregon, offer state financial aid applications that are open to undocumented students and can be completed instead of the FAFSA, most do not, leaving students already vulnerable who could benefit enormously from free tuition. the political equation entirely.


When the role that community colleges play in higher education is diminished and efforts to forego comparatively lower tuition are minimized, not only are the doors closed to countless students, but their ability to obtain their degree is also affected.

An eight-year demonstration project called “The Degree Project” offered ninth-graders for the first time in about half of public high schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, $12,000 for college, as part of a a “last dollar” funding model (which unfortunately excluded undocumented students by requiring FAFSA, as well as other requirements such as a minimum GPA of 2.5 and an attendance rate of 90%). Researchers tracked student outcomes over the eight years and found that “the program increased graduation from two-year colleges by three percentage points.”

“It may seem small,” the report adds, “but the denominator here is made up of low-income ninth-graders. Half of the control group didn’t even graduate from high school, let alone the The effect is equivalent to a 25% increase in two-year degrees. Additionally, given the choice, students were more likely to use the funding for two-year degrees, where tuition would be completely free.

A holistic approach to solving the higher education affordability crisis requires everyone to be on board, and right now Congress isn’t helping much. Progressives must continue to push lawmakers and Biden to enact expansive student debt relief, which would broadly benefit students and graduates of four-year colleges and universities, as well as community college students. At the same time, this mission must not forget the transformative power community colleges have to alleviate the debt crisis by helping students avoid taking on so much debt in the years to come, a proactive approach that can be strengthened. by offering students the possibility of starting their university course for free.

We should see the establishment of a truly free two-year model of education at the federal level as the first step of many toward creating a more equitable future.

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