Free community college tuition: Democrats’ plan could save them at critical time

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Enrollment in community colleges fell by almost 10%, or 476,000 fewer students, last spring compared to the previous year. The Covid pandemic has disproportionately affected typical community college students – parents, first-generation and low-income students who are employed in addition to taking classes.

In previous economic downturns, more people went to community college looking for better employment opportunities, and enrollment peaked after the Great Recession. But this time around, juggling childcare, the challenges of distance learning, and the changing restrictions on food and hospitality businesses have created too many obstacles.

“If there was a case for a free community college, Covid certainly tore off the bandage and made it clear,” said Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that works with community colleges to improve access for low-income people. students and students of color.

It is too early to say whether registrations have increased this fall across the country, although it is unlikely that they will fully return to pre-pandemic levels. But many community colleges are making changes to try to bring students back, Stout added.

Some have shortened academic periods and have classes starting at different times, giving students the flexibility they may need when work and babysitting schedules are disrupted. Other colleges aim to strengthen relationships with high schools, a bond that may have weakened last year as schools turned to virtual and blended learning.

Community college is already free in some states

Making community colleges free is not a new idea. Former President Barack Obama caused a stir when he proposed it in 2015. It never happened at the federal level, but several red and blue states, as well as cities, enacted a version of a tuition-free law, including New York, Oregon, Tennessee, and Rhode Island.

The details of the policy – about who is eligible and what costs are covered – vary widely from state to state, as do the results.

In some cases, the program functions as a scholarship and covers students’ tuition and fees remaining after using other financial aid grants they may have received. This means that a free tuition program may cover a small portion of the actual cost for very low income students who are already eligible for a Pell scholarship equal to the cost of tuition. Yet there is evidence that these programs, like the one in Tennessee, still lead to increased enrollment.

“There is power in the message that tuition is free. Figuring out how much college costs is complicated,” said Laura Perna, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

It’s unclear exactly how a federal free tuition program would work in conjunction with existing state and local programs. But political experts say pairing it with a larger Pell Grant, which can be used to cover additional costs such as accommodation and books, would help low-income students greatly.

What are the chances of this Congress passing?

The budget framework proposed by Senate Democrats calls for making tuition free at community colleges across the country, as well as increasing the Pell Grant for low-income students, providing money to help institutions to increase their student completion rates and invest more funds in historically black, tribal and minority-serving colleges.
The resolution that was passed by the Senate and House this summer is not a bill but a framework that includes a set of instructions for congressional committees, allowing them to draft legislation totaling up to 3,500 billions of dollars. Lawmakers are currently working on drafting the text – which could also include money for universal kindergarten, extending the recent expansion of the child tax credit and funds to fight climate change, for no to name a few.

The final package is expected to be considered as part of reconciliation, meaning it can be passed with 50 Democratic votes in the Senate alone without any Republican support.

But it remains uncertain whether all Democrats are in favor of the legislation. Moderate party members, including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, have long been skeptical of the price of the expense bill. This week, he also called on his colleagues to “take a strategic break” on the legislation – hurting the party’s plan to pass it by the end of September. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema also said she did not support the size of the proposal.


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