Tuition-free community college cut from federal budget bill

The revamped Build Back Better Act released this week by President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers no longer includes tuition-free community college but features several provisions to advance college affordability and attainment.

The new proposal—a $1.75 trillion package, down from $3.5 trillion—would slightly increase the maximum Pell Grant award, provide college retention and completion grants, and bolster funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs), Inside Higher Ed reports.

Overall, if passed, the updated social spending plan would invest $40 billion in higher education and workforce development, far less than the $290 billion in Biden’s original bill.

Small increase to maximum Pell Grant

The latest iteration of the Build Back Better Act would add $550 to the maximum Pell Grant award, which is currently $6,495 per student, per year—an increase available only to students at nonprofit public or private institutions. Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network, told Inside Higher Ed that the change, when combined with a $400 increase proposed through the appropriations process, would mean that the Pell Grant would soon cover 32 percent of tuition, fees, and room and board at the typical four-year public institution, compared with 29 percent currently.

“$500 doesn’t go very far,” Douglas N. Harris, who helped the Biden campaign research free-college programs and chairs Tulane University’s economics department, told The New York Times. “It’s not going to substantially change the financial outlook of these students.”

The bill also would increase financial aid access for participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and would address some tax implications of the Pell Grant. The latter could provide an extra $1,000 or more to around 730,000 lower-income students, according to the American Council on Education.

Investments in HBCUs, MSIs, college completion

The latest Build Back Better Act includes $10 billion for HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, and other MSIs. The investments include institutional aid to build capacity at the schools, financial aid for low-income students, and grants to support research and infrastructure. The bill also would direct another pool of research funding to HBCUs and MSIs via the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

In addition, the revised legislation would provide $500 million in fiscal year 2022 for college completion and retention efforts. Even though the amount is far less than hoped, higher education advocates cheered its inclusion.

“For too long we’ve focused on getting students into college and not enough on getting them through,” Nicole Siegel, deputy director of education at the think tank Third Way, told Inside Higher Ed. “Paired with the increase in Pell Grants, the investment in college completion and retention grants will provide front- and back-end affordability fixes to our higher education system, supporting our most under-resourced students and the institutions that serve them.”

Will tuition-free college come back soon?

Once central to Biden’s education agenda, tuition-free community college became a sticking point as some Democratic legislators balked at the bill’s price tag. The original legislation would have waived two years of tuition for students attending community college and would have required states to opt in.

Proponents of the measure said it would encourage enrollment and set students on the path to higher lifetime earnings. They also hoped it would help stem the sector’s ongoing enrollment slump. Critics, however, had questioned the focus on community colleges, given their relatively low graduation rates. Others called the measure unnecessary, noting that more than 15 states already offer tuition-free community college programs.

Advocates for tuition-free community college expressed disappointment at its omission from the latest bill. Thirty-two higher education and civil rights organizations issued a statement decrying the decision, Inside Higher Ed reports, and higher education leaders say they will continue to push for the plan.

“While we are disappointed by reports that America’s College Promise will not be included in the reconciliation bill, we believe that an investment in free community college will happen one day,” said Sameer Gadkaree, president of the Institute for College Access and Success.

Biden and leaders in his administration similarly vowed to continue pursuing the priority. “I know how important free community college is to [the president] personally, and I know he’s going to keep fighting about it,” Department of Education Under Secretary James Kvaal said on a call Thursday. “It’s a little hard to say right now what the legislative opportunity or strategy is going to be, but I know he’s going to try to turn over every stone and find ways to make progress on that idea.”

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