Free Community College Is Centerpiece of Biden Administration’s Latest Infrastructure Plan
May 03, 2021

​​President Biden on Wednesday announced his long-awaited request for free community college as part of the American Families Plan, a proposal that represents a massive and potentially transformative investment in higher education.

The second in a pair of comprehensive infrastructure requests to Congress, the plan also includes a substantial boost to the Pell Grant program—although one that falls short of doubling the maximum grant—increased support for minority serving institutions, and a substantial new grant program for student support services.

ACE President Ted Mitchell said the proposals “portend a revolution in the financing of higher education that would bolster opportunity and provide millions of low- and middle-income Americans the chance to pursue a higher education at two- and four-year colleges and universities.”

The core of the higher education program is two years of free community college, which the president is requesting $109 billion to support. He also is asking for $46 billion for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges, and other minority serving institutions (MSIs). Of this total, $39 billion would go to support up to two years of tuition subsidies for families that qualify, $5 billion to expand capacity in high-demand fields at these schools, and $2 billion to develop a pipeline of skilled health care workers.

A separate $62 billion grant program would provide funding to colleges that “adopt innovative, proven solutions for student success, including wraparound services ranging from childcare and mental health services to faculty and peer mentoring; emergency basic needs grants; practices that recruit and retain diverse faculty; transfer agreements between colleges; and evidence-based remediation programs,” according to the White House’s fact sheet.

On Pell Grants, the president is proposing $85 billion to increase the maximum award by approximately $1,400 and allow Dreamers to access the aid. Added to the $400 increase in the administration’s FY 2022 budget proposal, this would bring the maximum award to $8,295 a year. While well short of doubling the Pell Grant—a part of the president’s campaign platform—the administration called this provision a “down payment” on that promise. Doubling Pell remains a top federal student aid priority for the higher education community as well.

As Mitchell pointed out, much work remains to be done to turn these ideas into operational programs. The $1.8 trillion package also includes significant tax increases on high-income individuals, and Republican lawmakers are already lining up to protest.

The structure of the community college provision also brings with it some uncertainties. As Inside Higher Ed explained, the administration is proposing to create a partnership between the federal government and states and Native American tribes where the federal government would match $3 for every dollar that states invest to waive community college tuition and fees.

“Major departures in public policy always involve unknowable outcomes,” ACE’s Terry Hartle said. “And it will play out differently in different states, because the financing of community colleges varies across state lines . . . This is a once-in-a-generation chance to see a very significant change in the direction of federal policy that might significantly increase access to higher education. But it's not a slam dunk.”

The American Families Plan follows on the heels of the administration’s first infrastructure plan released March 31. That $2.3 trillion proposal would give $12 billion to community colleges for facilities and technology; $50 billion to the National Science Foundation; $40 billion to upgrade research infrastructure allocated across federal R&D agencies, half of which is reserved for HBCUs and other MSIs; and $100 billion to support and expand broadband networks, among other provisions. Click here for a full run-down of all the higher education proposals.​

​In the News

White House’s New $1.8 Trillion ‘Families Plan’ Reflects Ambitions — and Limits — of Biden Presidency
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | April 24, 2021

Going Big
Inside Higher Ed | April 30, 2021

A Big Plan, but Will Biden Get the Votes?
Inside Higher Ed | April 29, 2021

OPINION: The Biden Plan for Free Community College Has a Big Challenge
The New York Times (sub. req.) | April 28, 2021