Adjuncts, students rallying on #FreeCollegeNow bus tour. Credit: @MaryKayHenry via Twitter
Back in April, President Joe Biden was touting a multi-billion-dollar effort to provide two years of community college for free as a part of his American Families Plan — “an investment in our kids, our families, and our economic future.”
At the time, the president called for “$109 billion for two years of free community college so that every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate.”
But free community college appears to be on the chopping block, according to national news outlets, and it’s not clear why the provision has been targeted for elimination.
Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida union, speculates that it’s about money.
“Our sense is that, as with most major projects of this type, the provision may fail due to it’s overall cost,” Gothard told the Phoenix.
The Biden plan was supposed to ensure that “first-time students and workers wanting to reskill” could enroll in a community college to earn a degree or credential for free. Students could use the benefit over three years and even four years, depending on the circumstances.
Now, many people are disappointed about the apparent turnaround. In fact, 32 organizations and advocacy groups, including the NAACP, signed on to a joint statement last week urging the White House and Congress to keep pushing for the free community college provision.
“If emerging reports of the Biden Administration abandoning tuition-free community college are true, it would be a massive blow to 8 million students who would have benefited,” the statement reads.
It continues: “President Biden must urge his fellow Democrats to restore the tuition-free community college proposal to keep his promises, and maintain voters’ faith that democracy can improve their lives.”
CNN reported this week that free community college is still a priority for Biden, even if it’s on hold for the time being. And First Lady Jill Biden has long been an advocate for community colleges — she has taught at them.
According to data from the Florida Department of Education, Florida’s 28 community college system shows 392,894 students in the fall of of 2020-21, a key measure related to headcount enrollment for the beginning of fall term. That includes about 249,300 fulltime students and 143,600 part-time students.
Another measure, the annual unduplicated student headcount, shows 715,044 students in 2019-20, according to the Florida Department of Education, which encompasses the community college system in Florida.
But overall, the numbers have been going down, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual, unduplicated student headcount for community colleges has dropped from 801,023 in 2015-16 to 715,044 in 2019-20.
Gothard said that the UFF union is in support of any policy that give Floridians greater access to higher education.
“There is no doubt that two years of fully-funded community access would have a tremendous positive affect on the state,” Gothard told the Phoenix.
“Our belief is that you get what you pay for. And if we want the United States and Florida to continue as global leaders in major fields of study and industry, then we’ve got to invest in the projects that will bring about that future.”
Gothard thinks that losing this provision would be a “major loss” for the state, “especially in a time when — you know, as we’re coming out of a pandemic economy and pandemic working conditions — we need a lot of people in key fields.”
Martha Parham, vice president of pubic relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the United State’s college system serve some 12 million people, and Biden’s proposal shows policy makers are aware of the benefits of community colleges.
“Community colleges serve the majority of underrepresented students in the United States – 29 percent of our students are first-generation to attend college,” she told the Phoenix. “They’re older. They’re working. In many cases, they’re parents. In many cases, they are retraining for a new career or a new job.”
She was disappointed to learn of the the likely outcome of Biden’s proposal and has not heard anything official as to why the provision is likely no longer on the table.
“You look at members of Congress and members of the Senate, and they have so many competing interests that they’re trying to balance as they go through this and other pieces of legislation,” Parham said. “If you are a legislator, you have to balance and hear from a lot of different constituencies…So that may be what the issue is. ”
Parham sees a silver lining.
“I think it’s really important to remember that this is an historic moment for community colleges. Never in our history have we seen such interest form the federal government and a true understanding of what community colleges mean to the nation,” she said. “They (community colleges) truly are an economic engine. And for many, many millions of Americans, the on-ramp to the middle class.”
Parham recommends to those who wish to see this provision go through: “Nothing has passed yet, so I would say keep contacting your elected officials and let them know what is important to you.”
But if Biden’s community college plan doesn’t get resurrected, what are the alternatives?
Gothard, with the UFF union, believes some progress could be made at the state level in the annual budget to provide more money, arguing that community colleges are not well funded at the state level.
Dr. Angela Garcia Falconetti, the president of Polk State College, said the community college is continuing to monitor Biden’s community college proposal.
In an email to the Phoenix, she said that “increasing access and affordability of higher education and workforce training is something that can always be supported.”
“The Florida College System serves a student population that is predominately low-income and attending college part-time, balancing responsibilities such as full-time jobs and raising families with the pursuit of their degrees and workforce certifications,” Falconetti said. “Removing the financial barrier of tuition for students would assist them in persisting on their pathways to their academic and career goals.”
She noted that removing financial barriers to education and training “undoubtedly benefits our greater community,” by helping to fulfill critical workforce needs in areas such as health care, public safety, business, education, and more.
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