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Democrats' Spending Plan Could Make Free College a Reality

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  • Democrats released their $3.5 trillion spending plan Monday.
  • The budget resolution would allow students to enroll in community college at no cost, among other measures.

Senate Democrats released the text of a budget resolution on Monday, which lays out the framework for a $3.5 trillion spending plan.  

Among widespread investments in social programs and climate policy, the budget resolution would make community college tuition-free for two years — a move President Joe Biden as been advocating since the campaign trail.

"At its core, this legislation is about restoring the middle class in the 21st century and giving more Americans the opportunity to get there," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told colleagues in a letter. "By making education, health care, child care and housing more affordable, we can give tens of millions of families a leg up."

Now that the Senate has passed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, it could "immediately" move toward passing the budget resolution, Schumer said. Democrats can pass the spending plan without a Republican vote if all 50 of their members back the budget, under a process known as reconciliation.

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Twenty-five states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee, already have statewide free community-college programs and even more were expected to follow before the coronavirus pandemic put a severe strain on state and local budgets.

In the state-based programs already in place, students receive a scholarship for the amount of tuition that is not covered by existing state or federal aid.

Most are "last-dollar" scholarships, meaning the program pays for whatever tuition and fees are left after financial aid and other grants are applied.

How soon will your state's colleges be tuition-free?
Source: Campaign for Free College Tuition
How soon will your state's colleges be tuition-free?

Enrollment at four-year private colleges would fall by about 12%, while enrollment at four-year public universities and community colleges would rise by roughly 18%, according to a study on the economic impact of making some college tuition free by the Campaign for Free College Tuition and the student-led advocacy group Rise.

"You've got a net effect of almost 2 million more students enrolled in college," said Robert Shapiro, lead author of the study and a former economic advisor to President Bill Clinton.

"Make it free and they will come," he said.

Graduation rates would also rise, Shapiro found, resulting in an increase in social mobility and higher incomes overall.

"I cannot think of a single policy change that would affect the long-term prospects of as many people as this would," he said.  

Over time, "I feel quite confident that ultimately this program will pay for itself," Shapiro added. "It will raise incomes and also raise underlying productivity which would [in turn] raise incomes and corporate profit.

"That's the closest thing to a win-win."

Although the overall employment trend is moving in the right direction as the economy recovers from the pandemic, millions of Americans are still out of work and struggling financially.

One-quarter of last year's high-school graduates delayed their college plans, according to a survey from Junior Achievement and Citizens, largely because their parents or guardians were less able to cover the cost.

Half of the students who are not attending college or enrolling in a career and technical education program would have attended if they had received adequate financial aid, according to another recent report by the Horatio Alger Association.

Even fewer students enrolled in community college due to the pandemic.

Community college students likely are older, lower-income and often balancing work, children and other obligations. They are also disproportionately people of color — all groups that were especially hard hit by Covid.

However, not all experts agree that free college is the best way to combat the college affordability crisis.

Critics say lower-income students, through a combination of existing grants and scholarships, already pay little in tuition to state schools, if anything at all.

Further, the money does not cover fees, books, or room and board, which are all costs that lower-income students struggle with, and diverting funds toward free tuition could come at the expense of other operations on campus, including hiring and retaining faculty and administrators.

In addition, community college is already significantly less expensive. At two-year public schools, tuition was $3,770 for the 2020-21 school year, according to the College Board. Alternatively, at four-year, in-state public schools, tuition was $10,560 and, at four-year private universities, it averaged $37,650.

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