During his state of the union address in 2015, then-President Barack Obama pitched Congress and the American public on what he described as a “bold new plan.”
The idea? “To lower the cost of community college — to zero,” Obama told the lawmakers.
Now, President Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice president, is expected to make a similar proposal during his first speech in front of a joint session of Congress Wednesday.
Though free community college hasn’t become a reality on a national scale in the six years since Obama started pushing it, supporters are bullish about its chances for success this time around.
First Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, said in April that her husband is ‘ready for big ideas and full action, so that all Americans can go to community college.’
They say the political and on-the-ground environment has changed in key ways that could make policymakers more receptive to the idea than they were in 2015.
But the proposal still faces obstacles to becoming reality, including the usual Capitol Hill wrangling, and questions about whether it goes too far or not far enough in fundamentally rethinking the federal government’s role in higher education.
The Biden administration hasn’t released the details of its plan, but there are some indications of what it might look like. First Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, said in April that her husband is “ready for big ideas and full action, so that all Americans can go to community college.” As a candidate in 2020, Biden vowed to provide students with two-years of community college without debt.
Max Lubin, the chief executive officer of Rise, an advocacy organization focused on college affordability and other youth and student issues, noted that Biden’s support for free community college and tuition-free college dates back to his time in the Obama administration.
“What’s changed now is that in many ways the world has caught up with President Biden’s policy prescription,” he said.
A mainstream Democratic proposal with Democrats in power
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between today and when Obama floated free community college in 2015: Who is in power.
“That 2015 proposal went nowhere, but that’s because there was a Republican Congress and the Republican Congress was intent on not even considering President Obama’s proposals,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, who studies free college programs. “The situation is different today.”
Not only do Democrats now narrowly control the House of Representatives and Senate, but the idea of offering students a debt or tuition-free path to at least two years of college has become a mainstream Democratic policy. When Obama ran for president in 2008 and 2012, candidates were proposing ideas like refinancing student loans as a way to deal with college affordability and student debt.
‘This is something that President Biden has explicitly for many years made a part of his policy agenda and took it to voters.’
— Mark Huelsman, a fellow at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University
By 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was vowing to make four years of college tuition-free for middle-class students and debt-free for all students. In 2020, all of the major Democratic candidates for president had some kind of free college plan.
As a candidate, Biden proposed providing two years of community college to students debt-free and making four-year public college free for students from families earning $125,000 or less.
Unlike Obama, who brought the idea to Congress late in his second term without campaigning on it, “this is something that President Biden has explicitly for many years made a part of his policy agenda and took it to voters,” said Mark Huelsman, a fellow at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.
‘There’s been growing awareness of the value of some kind of postsecondary education when it comes to earnings and the need of employers to have more skilled and trained workers.’
— Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research
Democratic voters back the policy overwhelmingly with 83% saying they support tuition-free college in a February 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center. A large minority of Republicans, 39%, also said they support the idea.
That buy-in for the policy has been building over the past several years, thanks to a few key factors.
“There’s been growing awareness of the value of some kind of postsecondary education when it comes to earnings and the need of employers to have more skilled and trained workers,” said Miller-Adams. “It’s those two things that have moved more into the public consciousness along with growing awareness about how unaffordable higher education has become.”
Free college is a reality in states across the country
In addition, programs across the country, including those in Republican-leaning states, like the Tennessee Promise on which Obama’s pitch was partially based, have shown the potential of these programs.
As of August 2020, there were nearly 200 promise programs, or initiatives that reduce the cost of college for a significant segment of a region’s young people, according to the UpJohn Institute.
Speaking (virtually) to an audience attending a conference on tuition-free college in April, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, highlighted some of the lessons state programs can demonstrate to those considering free college at the national level.
“One, there is considerable demand from employers and workers alike for tuition-free college. Two, tuition-free college can command broad bipartisan support and, three, universal access to college is a movement that will not likely ebb until it is the right of all Americans,” Whitmer (virtually) told an audience attending a conference on tuition-free college in April.
Advocacy ramped up
At the same time that awareness of the challenge of affording college was growing and college promise programs were spreading, several advocacy organizations started to form and build momentum around the issue.
Lubin and his co-founder came up with the idea for Rise as students in 2017 when they realized that there wasn’t an organization for students interested in advocating around college affordability.
‘At the moment we are not going to have as much money as the oil industry, or big tech, or the defense contractors, or these lobbyists who can come in and spend millions of dollars to shape policy. But what we do have is student power and people power.”
— Max Lubin, CEO of Rise
Now, they pay students, many of whom are low-income and students of color, $15 an hour to work on voter registration drives, run state-wide free college campaigns, and connect students struggling to afford basic needs with food and housing resources.
“At the moment we are not going to have as much money as the oil industry, or big tech, or the defense contractors, or these lobbyists who can come in and spend millions of dollars to shape policy,” Lubin said. “But what we do have is student power and people power.”
Now, the hunger from employers and students for college that’s more affordable and the years of advocacy have put the idea of free college in a position to capitalize on a moment of increased urgency surrounding Americans’ financial lives and the economy more broadly.
“We are at the hopefully tail end of joint economic and health crises, and there is widespread public acknowledgement that we need greater investment in education overall and in the economy,” said Antoinette Flores, the managing director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
‘Community colleges in particular have been underfunded for several decades now and are asked to do in some cases the lion’s share of educating our country’s low-income students, students of color and underserved students generally.’
— Mark Huelsman, a fellow at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University
“College is a critical part of not only our long-term economic benefit, but also it matters for our recovery,” she added. “That’s part of what makes this different as the administration considers investment in the economy and in human infrastructure and well-being as part of that.”
Biden’s proposal also comes as he’s facing pressure on another related issue: Cancelling student debt. The increased interest in student-loan cancellation could help build support for the free college proposal because getting rid of student debt “goes hand in hand with addressing the upfront costs,” Flores said.
The pandemic downturn has also cut down on enrollment at community colleges and squeezed their resources. At the same time, the billions in relief Congress sent to higher education institutions over the past few months illustrated the role the federal government can play in mitigating schools’ funding challenges.
“Community colleges in particular have been underfunded for several decades now and are asked to do in some cases the lion’s share of educating our country’s low-income students, students of color and underserved students generally,” Huelsman said.
Obstacles to becoming a reality
Despite these ripe conditions, free community college is not guaranteed to become reality. For one, it’s being proposed as part of a large package of initiatives that will need to make their way through a divided Congress. In that scenario, “the worry is what gets sacrificed and left out,” Flores said.
As this “sausage-making” happens, as Miller-Adams describes it, supporters will be watching for a few key provisions to be included. Miller-Adams said she’ll be focused on whether the proposal provides “first-dollar” funding to students, or that it pays the cost of college regardless of whatever grants and scholarships students already have. That’s the version Biden pitched on the campaign trail, but the free college programs in many states are “last dollar” or require students to put their Pell grants and other funding towards tuition and then fill in the gaps.
Does free college only mean community college or does it include four-year schools? Is there an income cap on who gets the benefit? Should the programs ensure that public college is tuition-free or just that students can go to college without taking on debt?
Flores said she’ll be paying attention to whether the proposal includes some kind of protection from recessions’ impact on state funding for higher education. In the wake of the Great Recession strapped states cut funding to schools, which in many cases pushed tuition higher to cope.
Another factor that could complicate Biden’s proposal is the wide range of opinions among supporters of free college of what the program should look like. Some of the major questions that continue to be discussed: Does free college only mean community college or does it include four-year schools? Is there an income cap on who gets the benefit? Should the programs ensure that public college is tuition-free or just that students can go to college without taking on debt?
“There’s still a reasonable discussion on a policy level around who to include in free college, whether you limit by institutions, whether you limit by income,” Huelsman said. “Those debates will continue, I don’t expect those to go away within one policy initiative or one proposal or one law.”