• Biden Releases The American Families Plan, Congressional Democrats Introduce Free Community College and Four-Year Public College Legislation

    Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced legislation this week that would provide universal free community college and make four-year public college tuition- and debt-free for families making less than $125,000 annually. Additionally, President Joe Biden has released  The American Families Plan (AFP), the second part of his Build Back Better infrastructure plan.

    AASCU released a statement celebrating the multiple provisions of the plan that will broaden access to higher education for all Americans. AFP includes proposals for universal free community college; significantly reduced cost of attendance for two years at historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions; and a grant program to invest in completion and retention activities at colleges and universities that serve high numbers of low-income students.

    However, observers note that elements of the proposal—tuition-free community college for all and tuition-free public four-year college for many—may prove complicated to implement.

    Among the challenges that the free community college proposal needs to address are fundamental disparities among the states in terms of how they deliver technical-vocational training and general education programs leading to certificates and associate degrees. While some states have intentionally developed extensive networks of community colleges, others have incorporated associate programs into their four-year institutions, reducing the number of community colleges that could be eligible for the administration’s tuition-free college plans. 

    In addition, while some community colleges are authorized to award bachelor’s degrees (potentially rendering all their baccalaureate-track students eligible for two tuition-free years of study), many baccalaureate institutions grant associate degrees to students who may remain ineligible. In Alaska, for example, all associate degrees are granted by four-year institutions.

    AASCU encourages Congress to expand on the president’s proposal by extending tuition-free access for the first two years of higher education at all public institutions for eligible students and families.

    By comparison, the Sanders/Jayapal plan takes a snapshot of current tuition cash flows and proposes to eliminate them for all community college and some public four-year students by replacing out-of-pocket payments with a mix of matching federal and state funds at the ratio of three federal dollars for every state dollar. 

    This approach rewards states that have cut operating subsidies for their public higher education institutions by providing them with more federal subsidies than states that maintained higher education support at their own expense. Even so, states that have, for all intents and purposes, privatized their higher education systems may find their share of costs to replace tuition too burdensome to opt-in to the program. 

    The administration’s formal proposal or parts of it could be considered by Congress through one of the two upcoming budget reconciliation bills.