Washington Watch: America’s College Promise legislation introduced in House, Senate

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In advance of President Joe Biden’s proposal to provide two years of community college education without tuition and fees, congressional Democrats have introduced legislation drawn along similar lines. 

Called the America’s College Promise Act of 2021, and introduced by authorizing (education) committee members Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) along with the committee chairs, the legislation largely tracks previously introduced Promise legislation, with some key differences. 

Sponsors’ perspective

In introducing the bill, Levin stated, “The America’s College Promise Act will make good on the American promise of a high-quality education by offering free community college to all Americans, removing financial barriers that have kept working Americans from pursuing their education and professional development.” 

Baldwin added that everyone should have the opportunity to gain the education and skills they need to succeed without drowning in student debt.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, noted that, “As a former community college instructor in Washington State, I have personally seen the positive change that community colleges make in students’ lives. These institutions create pathways for students to pursue higher education and provide training for individuals to enter the workforce.”

Major features of legislation

Some of the bill’s major features:

Core Federal-State Partnership/Cost-Sharing

  • The federal government provides three-fourths of the average resident national community college tuition to states for each eligible student; states provide one-fourth of the average tuition (state match may be reduced if national or state unemployment rate rises). 
  • States will waive community college tuition and fees for all eligible students (irrespective of the current level of tuition).
  • States must meet maintenance-of-effort requirements for the average of the three previous years concerning: FTE spending for all public education; state support for operations of four-year public institutions; need-based financial aid.
  • Federal funding is guaranteed by being made “mandatory” spending rather than subject to annual appropriations.
  • Indian tribes also receive grants, generally under the same conditions as states.
  • States may use funds (if any exist) beyond those needed to waive tuition and fees for a variety of purposes.

Student Eligibility

  • Students must be enrolled half-time or more to qualify for zero tuition.
  • Eligibility is limited to six semester (or the equivalent), regardless of enrollment status.
  • Students must be enrolled in Title IV-eligible program to qualify—Title IV student eligibility is not required—and they must qualify for “in-State resident community college tuition,” unless they are so precluded by their immigration status. States may not impose additional eligibility requirements on eligible students other than those in the legislation.

Additional Requirements

  • Community college tuition may not increase more than the most recent Consumer Price Index increase or 3%, whichever is lower.
  • Applications must include promising and evidence-based institutional reforms and innovative practices to improve student outcomes, including transfer and completion rates, that have been or will be adopted by each such community college.
  • States must ensure that programs leading to a recognized postsecondary credential meet Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) quality standards.
  • States must develop plans to ensure that high school graduation requirements allow students to directly enter credit-bearing community college programs.
  • States must ensure that community college associate degrees are fully transferable to, and credited as, the first two years of related baccalaureate programs at public institutions of higher education in the state.

State Student Success Fund

  • A $1 billion annual formula grant program to states is created to enhance student success, with a match starts at 25% for the first four years of program and increases over time, reaching 100% in years nine and 10. States are to use funds to implement promising and evidence-based institutional reforms and innovative practices to improve student outcomes.
  • A variety of benchmarks and reporting requirements are associated with the receipt of funds.

ACP advocacy

AACC strongly supports the America’s College Promise Act. Some of the key advocacy arguments on behalf of the legislation include that it will:

  • Bring more students into higher education.
  • Help community college students in the most financial need as a “first dollar” program that allows the use of student aid for non-tuition expenses.
  • Enhance diversity in higher education and strengthen America’s workforce.
  • ACP will facilitate transfer and educational progression.
  • ACP requires states to contribute their fair share to higher education.

Next steps

The ACP legislation has a long route to enactment. The likeliest course is for the bills to be included in a sweeping “budget reconciliation” measure, using the same parliamentary course as the American Rescue Plan Act — meaning that the bill would likely pass only with Democratic votes. 

The budget reconciliation bill would likely be passed late this summer or in the fall and probably include pieces of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the just-announced America’s Family Plan. If enacted, such legislation would almost certainly exclude major portions of Biden’s proposals, making community college advocacy on behalf of ACP imperative. 

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.