As part of the American Families Plan, President Biden has proposed investing $109 billion to make two years of community college free. If all states, territories and tribes participate, about 5.5 million students would pay $0 in tuition and fees to attend, the White House stated.
Biden proposes an additional $62 billion to increase retention and completion rates at schools that typically serve lower-income students. According to the White House, these investments “will boost earnings, expand employment opportunities and enable the U.S. to win the 21st century.”
The pandemic caused college enrollment rates to drop 6.8% — 4.5 times the 2019 rate of decline, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Additionally, high-minority and high-poverty high schools saw a 9.4% and 11.4% decline in college enrollment, respectively.
Free community college programs aren’t a new concept. According to CNBC, 25 states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee, already have statewide free community-college programs. In these state programs, students receive a scholarship for the amount of tuition that is not covered by existing state or federal aid.
A senior administration official said in a press call that the federal share of the cost would be 75% of the average cost of tuition in each state, and states would pick up the other 25%. The official also said that states are able to spend more and would still be expected to maintain their current contribution to their post-secondary system.
Robert Shapiro, a former economic advisor to President Bill Clinton and lead author of a study on the economic impact of making some college tuition free, told CNBC that he believes the program will pay for itself over time. “It will raise incomes and also raise underlying productivity which would [in turn] raise incomes and corporate profit,” he said.
While a majority of Democrats are in favor of free community college, Republicans are divided. Data from Pew Research Center indicated that 83% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents overwhelmingly favor making college tuition free for all American students, while 60% of Republicans and Republican leaners oppose making community college free.
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