October 26, 2021
Do you know anybody who doesn’t love community colleges? Me neither. They furnish job training that businesses no longer bother to provide. They provide skills that K-12 education is supposed to teach but often doesn’t, and they’re a bridge to a four-year college degree. Democrats love them. Republicans, though mostly hostile to higher education, make an exception for community colleges. “Community colleges,” says Peter Granville, senior policy associate at the Century Foundation, “are some of the most appreciated and widely approved institutions remaining in the United States.”
During the 2020 campaign, candidate Joe Biden promised two years’ free tuition and fees at community college or at a public four-year university. After the election, that was whittled down to funding tuition and fees only at community college, where you can get an associate degree in two years. Over 10 years, the federal government would pay 75 percent of the average national cost (currently that’s $3,700); states would pay the rest. Then that got whittled down to a five-year program in which the feds would pay 100 percent of the average national cost and then ratchet their contribution down gradually to 80 percent by 2028.
Last week, that got whittled down to nothing. The program is out of the Build Back Better reconciliation package. And one of the reasons, it turns out, is that four-year colleges lobbied against it.
That isn’t the only reason free community college tuition got bounced from the bill. It isn’t even the primary reason. But it’s the most shocking reason. Which may explain why I couldn’t get anybody to confirm precisely which four-year colleges lobbied on this. One source very reluctantly told me of hearing secondhand that it was a public university that resides in a state I won’t name. My telephone and email queries to relevant parties at this university went unanswered, which certainly raises suspicions. But that’s as far as this cloak-and-dagger caper took me.
The main reason the free community college tuition proposal got bounced from the bill, President Biden told a CNN town hall last week, was that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin “and one other person [have] indicated that they will not support free community college.” Manchin was the main obstacle; the “other person” presumably was the reclusive Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, though at least some supporters of the bill thought Sinema was still gettable. Manchin, who last summer stated in a memo, “No additional handouts … or transfer payments” unrelated to families and health, and none of the latter unless they were means tested, hardened his opposition to the tuition proposal in the last few weeks. According to the Century Foundation’s Granville, the proposal Manchin was instrumental in killing would have furnished West Virginia with $40 million annually in tuition benefits extended to 22,000 students. (Sorry, kids!) Sinema’s opposition was perhaps less firm because Arizona would, according to Granville, get $400 million annually in tuition benefits extended to 237,000 students.