Tough negotiation ahead as US free-college plan advances

Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin may play key role in fate of Biden campaign promise

August 16, 2021

Weeks of negotiating lie ahead after the US Senate kicked off the long-promised legislative battle for free college.

The Senate voted 50 to 49 – in a full party-line vote of the chamber’s Democrats outnumbering its Republicans – to move ahead on a $3.5 trillion (£2.5 trillion) budget outline for 2022 that includes $285 billion for higher education.

The major elements include Joe Biden’s campaign promise to make public two-year colleges essentially tuition-fee free; increased funding for the Pell Grant, the main federal student subsidy; and new assistance for minority-serving institutions.

Although Democrats control both chambers of Congress, their advantage is narrow and some in the party are insisting that the overall level of government spending be cut before the House and Senate reach a final agreement.

The free-college idea also faces the prospect of dedicated pushback from private colleges, as the version set out by Mr Biden and many other leading Democrats benefits only public institutions.

“One thing is certain,” Robert Shireman, director of higher education policy at The Century Foundation, said of the Senate bill, “Congress will not be able to achieve all of their higher education priorities at the levels that have been envisioned.”

“This remains a rough blueprint,” said Jonathan Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, the main US higher education association. “There’s a lot left to be done before these ideas are turned into operational programmes.”

The free-college idea does, however, have the advantage of familiarity. About half of US states already have their own version of the plan, allocating money to needy students at amounts necessary to cover whatever Pell and other available support does not. The Democrat-backed plan in Congress would offer matching federal funds to reinforce those existing programmes and encourage the rest of the states to join in.

One key lawmaker in that process is Joe Manchin, a relatively conservative Democrat senator who believes the $3.5 trillion figure is unacceptably large and must be trimmed back before he votes on a final version. Mr Manchin also has criticised the idea of tuition-free college, saying he’d rather see the government focus on its existing strategy of offering loans that are forgiven at some point after the student earns a degree.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Tough talks as US free-college plan advances

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