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White House drops free community college from its spending bill

New graduates line up before the start of a community college commencement in East Rutherford, N.J., on May 17, 2018.
Seth Wenig
New graduates line up before the start of a community college commencement in East Rutherford, N.J., on May 17, 2018.

The Biden administration's program to make community college tuition-free will not become a reality in this round of the president's spending priorities, leaving progressive groups disappointed.

Both progressive and moderate Democrats confirmed to NPRthat two free years of community college — a major Biden priority — will likely not make it in a final package of key progressive priorities. Other higher education provisions included in the original bill — like expansion of Pell Grants for low-income students, money for college completion and vocational programs — are still on the table.

Biden had hinted last week that the free community college program would be omitted from the final bill.

"I don't know of any major change in American public policy that's occurred by a single piece of legislation," Biden said. "I doubt whether we'll get the entire funding for community colleges, but I'm not going to give up on community colleges as long as I'm president."

Progressive organizations say they are disappointed and frustrated.

"We aren't giving up," says Max Lubin, a graduate student who leads Rise, a student-run progressive advocacy organization. "We endorsed Biden on the basis of his free tuition plans, and we believe abandoning it would be a major liability in the midterms."

The free college plan from House Democrats included in the reconciliation bill was a federal state partnership to make community college free. Essentially, the federal government would give billions of dollars to states each year in exchange for the state eliminating tuition and fees at their community colleges.

The five-year plan would cost about $45.5 billion, about half as much as Biden's initial 10-year plan called for. It's estimated it would benefit about 8 million students.

"This would be one of the largest investments we've seen in higher ed in generations," Will Del Pilar, a higher ed expert with the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization, told NPR earlier this month. "[It] could change the landscape of higher education nationally and extend what we consider as a free education in this country beyond just high school."

One argument against a national free college program, though, is that a patchwork of state and local programs already make college free or very close to free.

Tennessee Promise is a statewide free college program in that state, and there are free college programs in cities like Dallas and Kalamazoo, Mich. And while existing financial aid scholarships can end up covering community college tuition — which is often very affordable — the process is often confusing to students and families.

"The problem with the system we have now is that whether you have a tuition-free path to college or not just depends on the accident of geography," says Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and a professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who studies free college programs.

A federal, universal benefit free of income limits and applications, like the proposal originally included in the bill, makes it more clear. She says people understand the concept of free.

"One of the most dramatic findings of 15 years of research is that simplicity is your ally," Miller-Adams says. If you can make that promise — you can go to college without paying tuition — you get a lot of leverage out of that message."

In other words, students who might not consider college — perhaps because they're the first in their family to go or they don't think they can afford it — would get a super-clear message: Community college is free.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.