Biden calls for free community college, Pell increase in spending plan

President Joe Biden on Wednesday released a $1.8 trillion spending plan featuring more than $300 billion in higher education investments. Citing “mounting evidence…that 12 years of school is no longer sufficient to prepare our students for success in today’s economy,” the American Families Plan would make community college free, grow the maximum Pell grant, and direct funds to lower-income students at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) in hopes of increasing college affordability and closing equity gaps.

Biden has said he will fund the plan—which complements a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package the administration released last month—in part by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Free community college for all

Among its provisions, the plan includes $109 billion across 10 years to fund two years of free community college for all U.S. students, including undocumented students who entered the country as children.

The Biden administration estimates that, if all states, territories, and tribes participate, this measure could benefit around 5.5 million students across nearly 1,000 community colleges. The institutions are a prime target for investment, The Washington Post writes, as they “have historically played a key role in helping people upgrade skills and résumés when the economy sinks”—and yet have seen outsized enrollment losses during the pandemic.

Larger maximum Pell grant

The plan also includes $85 billion to increase the maximum federal Pell grant by $1,400 for the lowest-income students. Combined with a $400 boost in Biden’s 2022 budget proposal, the maximum award would increase from $6,495 per student, per year to $8,295.

The increase, the administration says, is long overdue: in the last 50 years, the maximum grant went from covering nearly 80 percent of the cost of a four-year college degree to less than 30 percent. Referencing Biden’s campaign pledge to double the maximum Pell award, the White House called this proposed increase a “down payment” on that commitment.

Subsidies for students at minority-serving institutions

To reduce the chance that the promise of free community college will redirect students away from four-year MSIs, the American Families Plan also would provide $39 billion to cover two years of tuition at historically Black four-year colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). The subsidies would be available to students from families earning less than $125,000 annually.

Biden also proposes directing an additional $5 billion in institutional aid to HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs, to bolster their “academic, administrative, and fiscal capabilities.”

“HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs are vital to helping underrepresented students move to the top of the income ladder,” the White House said in its memo on the plan. HBCUs, for instance, make up just 3 percent of four-year universities but graduate about half of the nation’s Black lawyers and doctors.

Wraparound supports to boost completion

To help ensure students not only enroll in college but also complete their degrees, Biden is proposing $62 billion for retention programs at institutions that serve large populations of low-income students.

States, tribes, and territories will direct the grants to institutions that implement evidence-based programs to increase students’ degree completion. Those may include supports such as emergency grants, child care for student-parents, mental health services, and mentoring efforts. Grant recipients also may use the funds for efforts to diversify their faculty and streamline the transfer process.

Higher ed reaction largely positive, hinges on details

Although Biden’s plan does not address loan forgiveness, it “would still represent the biggest expansion in federal support for higher education in at least half a century,” Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy and knowledge management at the think tank New America, writes in The New York Times.

The proposal was “warmly received by many higher-education-policy groups,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. “The evidence is very clear—making community colleges free and increasing financial aid will increase college attainment, especially for people now being left behind in this economy,” said Temple University’s Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

“This is a revolutionary federal policy proposal,” Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education, told Inside Higher Ed. “This is a once-in-a-generation chance to see a very significant change in the direction of federal policy that might significantly increase access to higher education,” he added, noting that the plan’s ultimate impact will hinge on implementation details.

Some critics, meanwhile, have voiced concerns about the plan’s potential to funnel students to two-year schools, rather than four-year programs that offer more advanced degrees and higher graduation rates. Others point out that community college is already tuition-free in many areas, including 31 states, adding that tuition coverage isn’t enough to truly remove barriers for low-income students.

“There are real equity concerns with the focus on tuition-only funding in these college proposals,” Jalil Mustaffa Bishop, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, told Inside Higher Ed. “The current proposal might not do anything for the poorest college students if their tuition is already covered by existing grants.”

Observers say funding details could prove thorny

The plan also may face political and financial hurdles. Republicans are expected to oppose Biden’s proposed increase to the marginal income tax rate for the top 1 percent of American income earners and the capital gains and dividend tax rates for those earning more than $1 million annually.

The federal-state partnership the plan uses to finance free community college also may prove tricky, given that states currently charge varying amounts for tuition. Biden’s plan would deliver the same level of federal funding—75 percent of the average community college tuition nationwide—to every state, meaning that states with above-average community college tuition would need to kick in more funds beyond the 25 percent match outlined in the proposal. Because states can opt out of federal programs, the nation could end up with a “patchwork” of free community college programs, rather than a universal guarantee.

Still, given how many of the nation’s students attend community college and the desire for a college-educated workforce, Biden’s free-tuition plan “may have broad appeal,” The New York Times notes. There are currently several college-affordability bills circulating in Congress, although Biden has not yet endorsed specific legislation. Commenting on the plan’s potential in Congress, Michele Streeter, senior policy analyst at the Institute for College Access & Success, said “there is a general recognition of the need to make these kinds of investments to get people back in school and build a workforce and build economic mobility,” adding that she “would hope that there is pretty broad agreement on the need to make big investments in higher ed.”

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