Democrats’ free tuition plan could save community colleges at a critical time
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Democrats’ free tuition plan could save community colleges at a critical time

Democrats, following the lead of President Joe Biden, are planning to include free community college in a massive spending plan that party leaders are hoping to pass by the end of the month — and such a major federal investment could provide a much-needed jolt to the nation’s two-year colleges after they saw a huge drop in enrollment due to the pandemic.

Enrollment at community colleges fell nearly 10%, or by 476,000 fewer students, last spring compared to the year before. The Covid pandemic disproportionately affected typical community college students — parents, first-generation and lower-income students who hold jobs in addition to taking classes.

In previous economic downturns, more people went to community college seeking better job opportunities and enrollment peaked after the Great Recession. But this time, juggling childcare, remote learning challenges and the shifting restrictions on businesses in food and hospitality industries created too many hurdles.

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

It’s too early to tell whether enrollment increased this fall across the country, though it’s unlikely to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels. But many community colleges are making changes to try to bring students back, Stout added.

Some have shortened academic terms and have classes starting at various times, giving students the flexibility they may need when work and child care schedules are disrupted. Other colleges are aiming to strengthen relationships with high schools, a connection that may have weakened last year as schools turned to virtual and hybrid learning.

Community college is already free in some states

Making community college free is not a new idea. Former President Barack Obama made a splash when he proposed it in 2015. It never happened on a federal level, but several red and blue states, as well as cities, have enacted some version of a tuition-free law — including New York, Oregon, Tennessee and Rhode Island.

Policy details — concerning who’s eligible and what costs are covered — vary drastically from state to state, and so do the outcomes.

In some cases, the program works like a scholarship and covers the students’ remaining tuition and fees after using other financial aid grants they may have received. That means that a free tuition program may cover little of the actual cost for very low-income students who are already eligible for a Pell grant equal to the the price of tuition. Still, there is evidence that those programs, like the one in Tennessee, still lead to an increase in enrollment.

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

It’s unclear how exactly a federal free tuition program would work in conjunction with existing state and local programs. But policy experts say that pairing it with a bigger Pell Grant, which can be used to cover additional costs like housing and books, would go a long way to helping lower-income students.

What are the chances of this passing Congress?

The budget framework put forth by Senate Democrats calls for making tuition free at the nation’s community colleges as well as increasing the Pell Grant for low-income students, providing money to help institution’s increase their student completion rate, and investing more funds in historically black, tribal and minority serving colleges.

The resolution that passed by both 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 write legislation totaling as much as $3.5 trillion. Lawmakers are currently working on drafting the text — which could also include money for universal pre-K, extending the recent expansion of the child tax credit, and funds to combat climate change, to name a few.

The final package is expected to be considered under reconciliation, which means it can be passed with 50 Democratic votes alone in the Senate without any Republican support.

But it remains uncertain whether all Democrats are in support of the legislation. Moderate members of the party, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, has long been skeptical of the price tag of the spending bill. This week also asked his colleagues to “hit a strategic pause” on the legislation — throwing a wrench into the party’s plan to pass it by the end of September. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has also said she doesn’t support the size of the proposal.

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