Free College Is Dead in Congress, but It’s Alive and Well in the States!

Courtesy of The Campaign for Free College Tuition (Click to enlarge)

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article reviewing the plight of free tuition that was was cut from the federal reconciliation bill that has been working its way through Congress. President Biden proposal to make two years of community college tuition-free nationwide has not been received well in Congress.

But across the country, “College Promise” programs continue to grow among state and local governments as elected officials look for ways to improve college-going and work-force preparation.  As reported by The Chronicle.

“The idea of offering free tuition has grown steadily since the advent of the Tennessee Promise program in 2014, which became the model for a federal program proposed by President Barack Obama. Depending on definitions, half to two-thirds of states and scores of localities now offer some kind of program for free tuition, mostly at community and technical colleges.

Two years of free college tuition was a key campaign issue for Biden as a candidate in the 2020 presidential election and was originally included in the $3.5-trillion budget-reconciliation bill that Democrats proposed this year. But that provision, with a $109-billion price tag, was cut from the bill as moderates and progressives within the party negotiated to halve the overall cost of the legislation.

What remains in that legislation, which has yet to be finalized let alone voted on, is a $40-billion investment in higher education, including a $550 increase in the maximum Pell Grant award, a $500-million grant program to increase college completion, and $9 billion in financial-aid and research support for minority-serving institutions and tribal colleges.

The bill also includes some major policy changes, such as making federal student aid available to undocumented residents who have registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Higher-education leaders have signaled their gratitude for those amounts, which have been called historic one-time increases. But there is still a sense, for many, that stripping free tuition from the bill is a lost opportunity to increase college access on a monumental scale.

“This felt like an opportunity to take some bold action, try to get to where we want to be as a nation on this,” said Laura W. Perna, vice provost for faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

A federal free-college program would increase economic output by $170 billion a year for the next decade and income-tax revenues by $66 billion annually, one recent study concluded.

There is also an economic cost for not providing free college nationwide, according to an analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That study concluded that a federal free-college program would increase economic output by $170 billion a year for the next decade and income-tax revenues by $66 billion annually.

Morley Winograd, who leads the nonprofit Campaign for Free College Tuition, said that although free college has some bipartisan support in Congress, it was not among the key issues for progressive Democrats.

But there were also design flaws in the plan that drew critiques from across the political spectrum and may have contributed to the plan’s failure.

Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy and knowledge management at New America, a left-leaning think tank, found that the Biden plan would give far more federal money to states like California, where community-college tuition is relatively low, than to states like Vermont, where it is far more expensive.

Beth Akers, an economist and senior fellow with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the complexities of designing a federal-state partnership made this kind of problem inevitable and would quite likely burden future efforts.

Akers said free-college programs belong at the state and local level where they can be tailored to meet the economic needs of the work force.

Despite Congress’s unwillingness to include free college in the budget bill, the public remains largely supportive. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in July found that 63 percent of respondents favored free tuition at all public colleges. Even among Republicans, who generally oppose the idea, a majority of those ages 18 to 49 without a college degree support free college.

Martha Kanter, chief executive of College Promise, a nonprofit group that advocates for free tuition nationally, said the next debate about a federal free-college program needs to happen during a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was last updated under President Obama.

That’s unlikely, given the narrowly divided Congress. But the campaign for more promise programs will continue at the state and local level, said Kanter, who noted that many conservative-leaning states have been as willing to enact free-college programs as have many of those that lean progressive.

“The country has enough money to pay for what it values,” Kanter said.”

Here in New York, then Governor Andrew Cuomo and the NYS Legislature established the Excelsior Program in 2017 which provides free public college tuition for all families making less than $125,000 per year.  Well worth the investment!


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