Biden’s Back at It: Free Community College for All, or Just Hot Air?

When President Joe Biden unveiled his Plan B for student loan forgiveness, he also dusted off his old favorite: the promise of free community college. “I also want to make community college tuition-free so you don’t need loans at all,” Biden declared, highlighting the inclusion of free community college in his $7.3 trillion budget proposal for fiscal 2025.

Experts suggest that free college could be a more effective solution to the college affordability crisis than loan forgiveness, noting that while a federal initiative has yet to launch, the concept may find broad support in the future.

The CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, Ryan Morgan, pointed out that student loan forgiveness is just a temporary fix. While acknowledging it’s better than nothing, he stressed that it’s not a long-term solution.

Morgan explained that if cost ceased to be a barrier, anyone qualified and willing could pursue higher education, making it a popular bipartisan issue.

However, Biden’s initial plan to offer two years of tuition-free community college was removed from the 2021 Build Back Better Act. While the administration shifted its focus to loan forgiveness, various states have been advancing their initiatives to implement tuition-free college programs.

Currently, 35 states have established some form of tuition-free education, most of which are last-dollar scholarships that cover remaining tuition and fees after other financial aid has been applied.

Critics argue that, due to existing grants and scholarships, lower-income students often pay little to no tuition at state schools, which means free college might not significantly enhance access. Moreover, the additional costs like fees, books, and living expenses that burden lower-income students are not covered.

Community colleges also may not always be effective bridges to four-year institutions, with only 16% of community college students eventually earning a bachelor’s degree.

Community college remains a more affordable option. For the 2023-24 school year, the average tuition and fees cost at two-year public schools was $3,990, significantly less than at four-year institutions.

One state has emerged as a potential role model for President Biden’s latest effort to provide extensive tuition-free education. The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act is considered a leading model that supports recent high school graduates and returning adult learners, part-time students, and immigrants, irrespective of their immigration status. Since its implementation in 2022, New Mexico has seen a nearly 7% increase in college enrollments, a reversal from over a decade of declines.

However, whether this plan will prove effective remains debatable; while proponents argue it’s a step in the right direction, skeptics question whether it’s merely a political ploy. Only time will tell if free community college truly becomes the game-changer it’s touted to be or just another promise lost in the bureaucracy of budget proposals.

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