Biden free college plan hits reality of divided Congress

With a $300 billion price tag, campaign promise met with scepticism – and long-term optimism

五月 10, 2021
Two people look at a case of one of the world's largest diamonds in New York City as a metaphor for Biden’s $300 billion campaign promise met with scepticism.
Source: Getty
Within reach president’s proposal has support of 60 per cent of Americans

Joe Biden’s free college plan, having made the transition from idealistic campaign promise to fleshed-out legislative proposal, is quickly attracting criticisms that may dampen its prospects.

The centrepiece concern is cost. College-related spending accounts for $300 billion (£216 billion) in a series of investments proposed by Mr Biden – in infrastructure, childcare and beyond – that together total $6 trillion.

Republicans have made clear that they do not intend to support that kind of spending, likely leaving Mr Biden the job of avoiding any defections among conservative-learning members of his slim Democratic majority in Congress.

The president is helped by signs that his approach is widely popular with voters. According to polling, nearly 60 per cent of Americans back Mr Biden’s idea of making two years of community college fee-free for all students.

THE Campus views: Biden’s next big deal must include expanded broadband access

Another major question mark for the Biden free college plan comes at the state level. To ensure that states do not simply reduce their spending on public colleges as the federal government pays more, the Biden plan includes a politically precarious “maintenance of effort” provision.

It generally requires at least one dollar in new state investment in higher education for every three from Washington. And that 25 per cent requirement could drop as low as 5 per cent if unemployment rates climb in a particular state.

That large a match should seem attractive to states, said David Baime, vice-president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “It’s a very good deal for states that is being proposed,” Mr Baime said.

Recent experience is that states rush to cut education spending at times of economic stress. After the Great Recession of 2007, US states together sliced their higher education spending from $87 billion to $74 billion within five years. During the current pandemic, state tax collections in mid-2020 were running about 6 per cent behind levels of a year earlier.

The economic damage from Covid, however, looks less severe than the 2007 crisis, and the recovery now appears stronger, with most of the nation returning to economic normality, in part because of Mr Biden’s aggressive federal effort to provide relief.

Other challenges to the Biden proposal include the expectation of growing demand – from four-year institutions and their students – to justify excluding their first two years of tuition and fees, while making only community colleges fee-free.

In some places, that boundary is already getting blurred. More than 130 community colleges offer a limited number of four-year degrees, while some four-year institutions grant two-year degrees.

Generally, however, two-year institutions serve students from lower-income and minority families seeking job-specific training, and the Biden plan is aimed most squarely at helping them.

Extending the Biden proposal to cover the often-wealthier students at four-year public institutions would mean “many multiples” of the plan’s current price tag, Mr Baime said.

The political attention and the prospect of relief come as community colleges face bracing headwinds. Their enrolments dropped by more than 10 per cent during the pandemic, while the rest of US higher education largely held steady or suffered minor declines, with much of that a result of Covid-related restrictions on foreign enrolment.

“The enrolment struggles of the moment hopefully will pass with the pandemic,” Mr Baime said. And in Congress, he said, Democrats were expected to ultimately exercise their majority to pass much of what Mr Biden has proposed.

“There are all sorts of politics associated with that,” Mr Baime acknowledged. But, he said: “We think there is a very good possibility of this being included in legislation later this year.”


Print headline: Free college plan hits split Congress



  • 注册是免费的,而且十分便捷
  • 注册成功后,您每月可免费阅读3篇文章
  • 订阅我们的邮件
Please 登录 or 注册 to read this article.