Blunt on the president’s free community college plan

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona testifies before Senate education appropriators on the president's proposed budget. (Screenshot of streamed event)

Some Senate appropriators are questioning President Joe Biden’s plan to offer free community college, especially when Pell grants typically cover tuition and fees for those who qualify for them. They also wonder why the administration isn’t offering the same proposal to other public and private higher education sectors.

During a cordial Senate hearing Wednesday on the president’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), ranking member on the education appropriations subcommittee, said he was concerned about the free community college plan. He noted that Pell grants already covered much of tuition and fees at public two-year colleges. The average Pell grant award is $3,946, while the average tuition and fees at community college are $3,700, he said.

States also offer additional aid that often covers the difference after Pell grants are applied, Blunt said. He cited the Missouri A+ Scholarship Program, which covers tuition at community colleges and certain private technical schools for up to two years.

Blunt emphasized his support for community colleges, which play an important role in providing access to higher education for many individuals and in preparing people for available jobs. However, the former university president added that he thinks the president’s proposal would unfairly subsidize community college for higher-income students who can afford it. He also asked why the plan would not extend to other higher education institutions.

“I think there may be other ways to make it possible for more people to go to community college and all other schools without cost,” Blunt said during the hearing.

Leaning on Pell

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, sitting in person before a congressional committee for the first time as ED’s top official, said the administration’s budget plan, which seeks a 41% increase, aims to provide programs and support services to keep students on a path toward college and to stay in college.

The administration aims to expand the Pell Grant program to help more individuals go to college. The maximum Pell grant is $6,495 for the 2021–22 award year. Biden’s budget would increase the maximum grant by $400, and his American Families Plan would increase it by another $1,475, Cardona said.

The free college plan is another pillar to encourage more students to go to college, especially when many students have dropped out during the pandemic or are questioning going to college, the secretary said.

“If we don’t act with urgency, we are going to lose many of our students who are thinking about higher education as an opportunity to continue their growth,” he said.

Blunt said he is more receptive to increasing and tweaking the Pell Grant program than making community colleges free. With Pell grants, eligible students have the flexibility to use the money at any qualifying accredited higher education institution.

“It doesn’t limit options,” Cardona said of the free community college plan. “If anything, it provides more opportunity for students who might not have considering higher education an option for them due to the costs.”

‘Let them earn it’

Some other Republicans on the appropriations panel said they agreed with Blunt. Even one Democrat questioned the plan. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) said he would like to see students “earn it.” He said he would forgive the federal student loans of community college students who complete their associate degree in two years.

“Let them earn it. Don’t give it on the front end; earn it on the back end,” Manchin said. “You’d be surprised how much more they respect and appreciate something they’ve earned than something you’ve given them.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) also questioned why the administration appears to be creating new programs with new funding to address issues that are addressed by existing programs. He cited the TRIO program. He said he would prefer to increase funding for TRIO rather than create a duplicative program, as proposed in Biden’s budget.

“There are lots of schools in Kansas and across the country that would love to have a TRIO program or would love to expand the number of TRIO programs they have,” Moran said. “Those are restrained in many instances because of lack of funding. And yet we are putting significant new dollars into a new program, which I would suggest has a pretty similar objective as TRIO.”

During the hearing, appropriators also questioned Cardona about wraparound student support services, high default rates among students attending for-profit institutions, delays at the Education Department in implementing changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and issues about K-12 programs.

Bringing together stakeholders

Also on Wednesday, Jobs for the Future held a remote conference on learning and work, joined by three secretaries in the president’s Cabinet: Miguel Cardona of the U.S. Education Department, Marty Walsh of the U.S. Labor Department and Gina Raimondo of the U.S. Commerce Department. To better connect education to work and regional economies, all stakeholders — schools, colleges, nonprofits, business and industry, and others — need to align better, they said.

“I hope to see an evolution of our college and career readiness programs to include pathways to so many more careers and so many more opportunities for our learners,” Cardona said.

Raimondo, former governor of Rhode Island, said successful private and public partnerships need to be scaled, noting an example of how the airline industry worked with community colleges to develop skilled mechanics.

She added that it’s also more than revamping curricula with business and industry. Community college students need extra support — such as transportation and childcare — to help them succeed.

Too often, individuals don’t know what programs are available to help them, whether it is for new workers or incumbent workers seeking to upgrade their skills, Cardona added.

The Biden administration is seeking to make huge investments in education and workforce development that will strengthen the economy, create better career paths for Americans and provide more equitable opportunities, Walsh said.

“This is potentially a once in a generation opportunity that’s in front of us right now,” said the former mayor of Boston.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.