Feds' Free Community College Bill Unveiled
President Obama’s plan for free community college tuition came a step closer to becoming law on Wednesday with the unveiling of a draft Senate bill outlining its key elements.
But the proposal still faces several major hurdles – beginning with its estimated $90 billion price tag – and staunch opposition from conservatives who think education legislation is best left to states.
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a conference call with reporters to announce the America’s College Promise Act of 2015, a bill that would make two-year community and technical colleges free to eligible students. Under the legislation, the federal government would contribute three times the money invested by each state to eliminate tuitions.
Obama launched his community college plan while visiting Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., on Jan. 9. There, he highlighted legislation enacted by the state’s Republican governor and legislature to make community and technical colleges free. Obama emphasized the America’s College Promise Proposal again during his State of the Union address 11 days later.
On Wednesday, Scott underscored a part of the proposed legislation that would offer assistance to low-income students who transfer from two-year to four-year programs. For the first time, he said, “low-income students can have tuition and fees of their first two years of college reduced at historically black colleges and universities … or other minority-serving institutions.” The bill would include measures to make more academic credits at two-year schools transferable to four-year institutions.
Duncan also emphasized a point previously made by Obama that the program does not create “free rides” for students and schools. Students, for example, must maintain a college GPA of 2.5, attend regularly, and make “steady progress” toward graduation to receive the tuition waiver.
“This can literally change the game on making college much more affordable for America’s hard-working families by requiring everyone to do their part,” the education secretary said. “Everyone has skin in the game: two-year colleges must strengthen their programs, states must commit or recommit to invest in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education by staying on track to graduate.”
Although current estimates place the potential number of beneficiaries around nine million students, Duncan was optimistic the figure would expand once the program was under way.
Baldwin estimated the federal government’s total cost for the program will be $90 billion over the next 10 years, with $80 billion of that coming from the community college program and $10 billion directed toward institutions that serve primarily minorities. That number is up from the $60 billion estimated by the White House in January, and it implies Washington will expect states to cough up around $30 billion on their own in accordance with the proposed three-to-one ratio of federal-to-state contributions.
Less clear was whether the plan would pay for itself – for example, by reallocating funds already earmarked for education – or whether new sources of state and federal funding would need to be found.
This is likely to be a sticking point for conservatives and budget hawks as the bill moves through Congress. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, has expressed opposition to the America’s College Promise Act, despite his state’s prominent role in the legislation’s introduction. In a statement released after Obama announced his plan in his Knoxville speech, Alexander called on “other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done … instead of creating a new federal program.”
Even the bill’s advocates admit that they are facing challenges. There are currently 10 cosponsors for the America’s College Promise Act in the Senate—none of whom are Republican—and 61 cosponsors in the House. Baldwin expressed hope that she will corral more bipartisan support before she formally introduces the bill in the Senate.
Reducing or eliminating higher education costs has become one of the key proposals of Democratic presidential campaigns, as well. On Wednesday, Martin O’Malley released a plan to eliminate student debt for in-state public colleges and universities within five years, including reducing annual tuition to four-year colleges to an amount equal to or less than 10 percent of the median income in Maryland, and, for two-year institutions, reducing it to five percent of median income. “Debt-free college isn’t about ‘free stuff;’ it’s about providing opportunity to every American,” the former Maryland governor said in a statement. “Our nation was founded on the principle of equal opportunity, and right now, we’re not living up to that when it comes to
A national map of college affordability made by the campaign shows college tuition in Maryland is 12 percent or below the state’s median income; in contrast, tuitions in Vermont—home to O’Malley’s progressive rival Bernie Sanders—are 25 percent of the Green Mountain State’s median income or more.
In May, Sanders introduced a bill to waive tuitions altogether, funded by proposed state and federal taxes on financial corporations.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is expected to release her own “debt-free” college plan soon.
In the press conference call, both Baldwin and Scott expressed support for eliminating Americans’ existing college debt, an idea frequently discussed on the campaign trail. However, they were more skeptical that it would pass in Congress. “I would support it, but I think this more modest proposal has a better chance of passing,” Scott said.