Biden Offers Landmark Plan for Free Community College, but Access Alone Is Not Enough

Published apr. 29, 2021

JFF applauds President Joe Biden’s plan for investing in America’s children and families—which he presented in an address last night to a joint session of Congress—including his call for two years of free community college.

Laying out the steps he would like to take to ensure that our nation can achieve a full recovery after this period of pandemic-driven turmoil and family financial instability, the president provided details of the American Families Plan, his administration’s wide-ranging proposal to invest in crucial supports for people who have lost jobs and are trying to reenter the labor market. These include increased funding for child care and child care workers, a national paid family and medical leave proposal, adjustments to unemployment insurance benefits, and expansion of tax policies that support families, including the child and earned income tax credits.

The plan is evidence of the Biden administration’s strong commitment to serving the holistic and basic needs of individuals and families, and if enacted, the free college proposal would represent a noteworthy expansion of free public education in the United States. It would provide two years of free community college for first-time students and workers who want to build new skills, significantly increasing access to opportunities to pursue a degree or certificate that leads to family-supporting careers. It is estimated that 5.5 million students—including DREAMers—stand to benefit from the program.

If enacted, the free college proposal would represent a noteworthy expansion of free public education in the United States.

Recommendations for Effective Free College Programs

As the Biden administration promotes this proposal to policymakers and the public, the policy design that Congress develops will be critical to its success. JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust has developed practitioner-informed policy design principles for College Promise programs that federal policymakers can look to as they work to turn this plan into reality. To ensure that free college programs lead to equitable outcomes and economic advancement for students, the Trust offers the following recommendations:

  1. Advance Student Success. As policymakers work to develop a free college program, they must remember that access is not enough. Free college should serve as a catalyst for making comprehensive reforms to postsecondary systems and structures that are proven to dramatically increase student persistence and completion. The administration recognizes this need: The American Families Plan includes a proposal for a $62 billion investment to support evidence-based strategies that strengthen completion and retention rates at colleges and universities that serve high numbers of students from low-income backgrounds, particularly at community colleges. We are glad to see this commitment and hope similar strategies will be included in the development of a free college program.
  2. Keep It Simple. The design of these programs should remain simple, making it easier—not harder—for students from all backgrounds to access and complete postsecondary coursework. Each restriction, requirement, or directive adds a degree of complication that may make it less accessible or effective.
  3. Ensure Sustainable and Stable Funding. Policymakers should identify a long-term or permanent funding source that is stable and sustainable before implementing a free-college program. That’s essential to guaranteeing that the promise made to students will not be broken.
  4. Allow for Flexibility. The federal government should provide a framework for implementing free college that accommodates local and regional needs. Federal policy should set broad goals, provide fiscal support, create incentives for community partnerships, and set accountability structures—but also provide sufficient flexibility for colleges to design programs that reflect their communities’ needs.
  5. Share Accountability. Free college policies should be positioned as part of a larger talent development strategy involving communities, two- and four-year institutions, and workforce and industry partners. Federal policy should ensure shared and evolving accountability by all parties involved, including the government, the institution, students, the community, and local businesses.

Look to States for Policy Models

Policymakers can also look to states, including Virginia and Michigan, that are creating programs aligned to these principles.

For example, Virginia last month enacted a statewide program called the Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back Initiative. Also known as the G3 Initiative, the program provides students from low- and middle-income households opportunities to attend college free of charge to prepare for high-demand fields. The goal is to ensure students don’t just access postsecondary education, but also are able to find a job afterward.

In Michigan, the state’s Reconnect program allows adults without an associate’s or bachelor’s degree to attend community college for free, in either a degree or a credential program, while also requiring colleges to redesign developmental education to accelerate student entry into college-level courses. This type of program reflects the importance of bringing the unique needs of adult students into any conversation about free college at a time when the pandemic has left millions of Americans in search of new careers.

It is imperative that free college proposals prioritize the needs of learners from populations underrepresented in higher education who may be underprepared for college.

Access Is Not Enough

With its increased supports for individuals and families, and in particular its call for more affordable postsecondary opportunities, the American Families Plan would help our nation move toward an equitable recovery. However, as the administration and other federal policymakers consider the proposal for a free college program, it is important to remember that access is not enough. We need to ensure that students are able to complete their programs and find good jobs. It is imperative that free college proposals prioritize the needs of learners from populations underrepresented in higher education who may be underprepared for college. For both school-age young people and working-age adults, we must ensure that they are able to develop the skills and earn the credentials they need to thrive in the new economy.

JFF hopes the Biden administration and Congress can work together in support of recovery measures such as those proposed in the American Families Plan to ensure that all Americans, businesses, and communities rebound and advance economically.