Free Community College Is Dead — and Still Possible

Free community college was cut from the federal budget bill, but its advocates aren't done fighting for it.
Colin Beresford
By Colin Beresford 
Edited by Karen Gaudette Brewer

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Until late October, community college in the U.S. was the closest it's ever been to becoming free for everyone nationwide.

A $45.5 billion proposal for two years of free community college, part of the Biden administration's "Build Back Better" agenda, promised students a path to attain a college degree without student loans — a transformative pledge in a country that collectively holds over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. The proposal would've covered all tuition and fees associated with attending community college.

But after surviving several revisions to the forthcoming, scaled-back $1.75 trillion domestic investment proposal — also known as the "Build Back Better" bill — two years of free community college was cut. Other proposals aimed at higher education are expected to make it into the budget, including an increase to the Pell Grant and funding for historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions.

Had the proposal made it into law, it would've soon paid for itself, according to an analysis from Bloomberg News and Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

If every state had implemented free community college, the study projected, higher wages for those who earned bachelor's and associate degrees would boost GDP by $170 billion and tax revenues by $66 billion every year for the next decade. The analysis found that the increase in GDP would've resulted from more workers receiving higher wages after attaining bachelor's or associate degrees.

Community colleges are already a crucial part of job training in the U.S; in 2019, roughly 49% of all employed college-educated Americans attended a community college. Moreover, community colleges educate a higher proportion of minority students compared with traditional four-year colleges.

Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said via email that the AACC is disappointed the proposal for free community college was dropped. Still, she was "also proud that community colleges are being discussed at the highest policy levels as solution providers for increasing the number of skilled workers in America."

Free community college proponents say they're not giving up

Two years of free community college won't make it into the federal budget for 2022, but those who have fought for it say they aren't finished pushing to get the proposal into law.

"I'm going to get it done," President Joe Biden said in an October CNN town hall. He added that first lady Jill Biden, who currently teaches at a community college, wouldn't be happy with him if he didn't. More recently, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told the Detroit Free Press in November that he would continue to advocate nationwide for free community college.

Some members of Congress have echoed the sentiments, including some of the original sponsors of the free community college proposal. Since 2015, when the proposal was first introduced, lawmakers such as Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., have pushed to make community college free nationwide.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in an email that the widespread support for free community college, from Congress to the White House, has created momentum behind the proposal. That momentum, she said, motivates her to continue pushing for free community college.

"We must build on the progress we make to get students and workers the support they need to succeed," said Murray, a co-sponsor of the proposal. "Just like President Biden — and community college champions like Senator Baldwin — I won't stop fighting until we finally make community college tuition-free."

Free or not, community college has much to offer

In most parts of the country, community college still carries a price tag, but that doesn't mean it's not a good option for higher education.

Community colleges generally offer associate degrees, which can take at least two years to complete. Someone with an associate degree earns $938 a week on average, or $157 more than someone with a high school diploma and no college, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with an associate degree are also less likely to be unemployed than someone with a high school diploma only.

​​» MORE: How to Pay for College

Although you'll have to pay to attend community college in most states, the costs are still significantly lower than most public four-year colleges. For example, tuition for the 2021-22 academic year at an in-district two-year college was $3,800, while an in-state public four-year college cost $10,740, according to the College Board.

Eighteen states already offer free community college to at least some students, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, a nonprofit that aims to make college more affordable. In addition, there are states, such as Tennessee, that make two years of public community or technical college free for residents.

For those who want a bachelor's degree from a traditional college, two years of community college, then transferring to a four-year school for completion is typically the least expensive path. However, if this is your intention, make sure the credits you earn from community college will transfer to the college you wish to attend.

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