Universities keep quiet as Biden retreats from free college plan

Four-year institutions long preferred to emphasise Pell Grant rather than work with community colleges to aid two-year transfers

October 22, 2021
People running backwards
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Joe Biden’s year of slow retreat from his free college promise is encountering little or only muted protest from US higher education, in part reflecting the lack of interest in the idea among four-year institutions.

In the latest setback for his 2020 campaign promise, Mr Biden publicly admitted that he doubts Congress will approve “the entire funding for community colleges” as lawmakers look to pare back his proposed $3.5 trillion (£2.5 trillion) package of government-wide social spending to about $2 trillion. Following that, congressional Democrats suggested that the initiative – making community colleges tuition-free – would be removed entirely from their budget plan.

Another major Biden proposal – $20 billion to improve science and research capacity at historically black and other minority-serving institutions – has been knocked down to only about $2 billion in the negotiating process on Capitol Hill.

Although Democrats control both houses of the US Congress, they hold only a one-vote advantage in the Senate, where two conservative party members have been refusing to accept the size of new spending sought by Mr Biden.

The idea of free college looked politically difficult from the moment Mr Biden was elected last November, with even higher education leaders questioning it. Advocates argued that much of the modern US workplace now requires at least two years of college, similar to how a high-school degree was the norm expected by employers in decades past. But opponents persistently questioned the cost, especially as a benefit for students and families who could afford the relatively low tuition costs of community colleges.

Opposition in academia was centred in four-year institutions, which urged lawmakers to instead prioritise the Pell Grant, the main federal subsidy for low-income students. That position, said a leading free-college strategist, Martha Kanter, largely reflected a refusal by many four-year universities to figure out ways they could ease the transfer of credits earned at community colleges.

Eliminating tuition fees at the community college level would help large numbers of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees if the four-year institutions were simultaneously willing to “partner in new and different ways with the community colleges”, said Dr Kanter, an undersecretary of education in the Obama administration. “And they haven’t wanted to, predominantly,” she said of four-year colleges and universities.

Prominent exceptions include the State University of New York, which introduced a policy in 2015 that guaranteed that SUNY campuses would accept credits earned at other SUNY locations and at the state’s community colleges. SUNY’s chancellor at the time, Nancy Zimpher, saw nearly half the system’s graduates beginning their studies at community colleges but then losing as much as 20 per cent of their earned credits in the transfer. “That's ridiculous in the 21st century,” said Dr Kanter, now the chief executive at College Promise, which has helped to organise free tuition programmes in 17 states and more than 350 local communities across the US.

Such Promise programmes work largely by finding public and private funding to help cover the difference between the cost of community college and the aid already available to students, including the Pell Grant. Under the Biden plan, the federal government would spend about $45 billion over five years covering that gap, with states expected to eventually assume about a fifth of the cost. About a quarter of US states already were expected to reject the offer if Congress approved it.


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