Quarter of US states ‘likely to skip’ Biden free college plan

Black students expected to be disproportionately hurt by local refusals to accept federal aid, analyses conclude

October 4, 2021
A lady vaults over a stair railing as a metaphor for a quarter of US states ‘likely to skip’ Biden free college plan
Source: Getty

The Biden administration’s free community college plan, while intended to be universal, could prove unaffordable for about a quarter of US states and exclude large shares of minority students, expert assessments have concluded.

The plan now moving through Congress would begin in the 2023-24 academic year with federal funding filling the gaps needed to ensure two-year tuition for an estimated 9 million students, and would eventually require states to cover 20 per cent of that cost.

That, however, may prove too much for many states that currently invest relatively little in their junior colleges, according to analyses by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (Sheeo) and the Century Foundation.

And the omissions – more likely in states with conservative leaders traditionally hostile to government expenditure – will fall most heavily on black students, according to the Century Foundation, a progressive thinktank.

Both it and Sheeo identified about a dozen states facing the largest financial hurdles to accepting the federal offer crafted by Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress.

Mr Biden put forth the idea – covering the difference between the cost of community college tuition and the existing levels of federal and state student aid – during last year’s presidential campaign as part of a promise to boost equity in higher education.

The plan pending before lawmakers would cost the federal government an estimated $45 billion (£34 billion) over its first five years. The state share of that plan would reach the 20 per cent level after four years. That requirement for a limited match is intended to help states while deterring them from shifting even greater costs for higher education on to the federal government.

Many states look likely to accept the deal, said Jenna Sablan, a senior policy analyst at Sheeo, which represents the chief executives of state-wide governing boards in US post-secondary education.

Those states include many that already cover the costs of community college and could see a net gain to their budgets, Sheeo said. But for some states, Dr Sablan said, “there will be a significant investment required for their participation that, when combined with political and fiscal realities in the state, will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to participate”.

And the terms could get worse before final enactment, as congressional Democrats struggle to defend the plan as part of the trillions of dollars in new social programmes they are seeking after the government hit record deficits during last year’s Covid-driven economic downturn.

US community colleges currently enrol about 4.5 million students, after suffering heavy pandemic-related declines.

The Century Foundation analysis concludes that if the free tuition plan does not attract the 12 states now seen as most likely to opt out of the agreement, new federal funding per black community college student would be 46 per cent lower nationwide than if they joined.

The states facing steep increases in funding to meet the federally required match are led by Vermont. It is the nation’s second-smallest state by population, and Sheeo estimates that it would need to raise its higher education funding by 142 per cent, while the Century Foundation puts the figure at 199 per cent.

Beyond that, several other states would need annual funding increases of 20 per cent or higher, according to the two analyses. They include New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Dakota.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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