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A Bold Agenda

President Biden’s American Families Plan is one of the boldest domestic policy proposals in 50 years. Higher ed leaders, analysts, and advocates are calling it momentous, historic, and potentially transformative.

Broadly, the $1.8 trillion plan seeks to strengthen and grow the middle class, including through: two years of free community college, an increase in the maximum Pell Grant, money for evidence-based strategies to improve completion and retention rates, and support for minority-serving institutions. 

Big plans like this raise a lot of big questions. An obvious one, of course, is how, or whether, the White House can win support in Congress for making any of this a reality. Here are some of the others people are raising:

How do you make sure two years of free community college is good for students?

“One bad outcome would be to incentivize students to go to a cheaper college that has really low graduation rates,” says Tina Fernandez, executive director of Achieve Atlanta.

Policymakers should find ways to take into account the strength of an institution—looking at things like completion rates, social networks, and graduates’ employment prospects—when making college free, she says, rather than apply a blanket approach.  

Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, asks whether there might be other conditions attached to free community college, such as mandates that colleges offer career counseling, placement services for vocational programs, and transfer advice for those wanting to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

Linda Perlstein, a director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, says it’s critical that students can easily move between two- and four-year colleges.

“Free community college can be transformative, but its potential to change lives depends on improving transfer systems and practices,” she says. “An associate degree in liberal arts, to take the biggest example, is not a terminal degree with great labor market value.”

The goal for four-fifths of community college students is to get a bachelor’s degree, Linda says, and colleges will have to make it easier for them to transfer in their major without losing credit.

Sean Creighton, president of the New American Colleges & Universities, asks how free community college has moved the needle in states where it already exists, especially in terms of economic and social mobility.

“I know free community college has bipartisan support,” he says, “but will an unintended consequence be driving lower income students into a learning environment that doesn’t help them succeed in college because they do not receive well-deserved time and attention and low faculty ratios found at smaller institutions?”

How can this be sustained?

“The educational career of a student in the 21st Century spans two decades, or more,” says Kim Wilcox, chancellor of the University of California at Riverside. A four- or eight-year commitment to these plans will not be enough.

The nation, he says, needs to “remain vigilant in assuring that this is not a one-time positive blip in our history of educational support.” 

How do states fit in?

A lot of higher education policy and funding is driven by states. So one of the biggest questions Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, has is what the role and responsibility of states and communities would be.

And, if the federal government adds some sort of matching requirement for the money, would states ultimately participate? That’s been a challenge, Tom says, in other programs where the federal government provides a significant share of money, such as Medicaid. 

He also worries about whether increases in the Pell Grant program would lead states to scale back their funding for colleges. “We’re always concerned about states supplanting federal investments in higher education.”

Here are some things people told us aren’t getting as much attention as they should in the conversation:

The power of free college to change the narrative about cost. “An aspect that doesn’t get enough attention is that the free college policy is a counter to a phenomenon policymakers, colleges, and advocates have not been able to overcome in decades despite all sorts of communication and marketing attempts,” says Michael Dannenberg, vice president for strategic initiatives and higher education policy at Education Reform Now.

“Folks often overestimate the cost of college and underestimate how much financial aid they can get. The free college message and policy takes care of that, and it’s been proven to work at the state and local level.” 

Just how important the money for completion and retention strategies could be. “This is a big deal and could make a huge difference for students,” Linda Perlstein says, “if colleges use the money smartly on not just strategies but also systems that work.”

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, adds that dedicated funding for student-success programs is “a compelling need on our campuses that often cannot be supported the way that it should.”

How non-degree programs fit in. Paul Fain, who writes The Job, our Open Campus newsletter about education and the American workforce, says job-connected credentials could get a huge, and controversial, boost from the money for free community college.

It’s important to remember, Paul adds, that the president’s bigger infrastructure plan is focused on jobs for people without degrees.

“As Biden said last night, 75 percent of the jobs created under the American Jobs Plan wouldn’t even require an associate’s degree. This is part of an enormously important political shift among liberals and progressives, with many now viewing degree requirements and even college itself as drivers of inequity.”

Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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Some Pell Perspective

We’ve written before about the declining purchasing power of the Pell Grant. Back in the 1980s, the maximum award covered half of the total cost of attending a public college. It’s now fallen to about 29 percent.

After some talk about doubling the Pell Grant, this week the Biden administration proposed increasing it by $1,400 — up to about $7,900. That’s a major increase — more than it has grown in total since 2009. But the chart below shows how even that big spike just chips away at a widening gap.


Washington pumped $35 billion into emergency grants for college students. Here’s how it’s going.
It is the largest federal investment in grants to rescue students in crisis and an undertaking rife with bureaucratic hurdles. Still, the proliferation of emergency aid programs is one of the few trends to emerge from the pandemic that higher education experts hope will remain. (Washington Post)

‘It’s not enough to get students in the door’: Reimagining the role of community colleges

Two North Carolina community colleges are rethinking their role in their communities as drivers of economic mobility, connecting students to good jobs. (EdNC)

Students, college leaders debate the future of campus policing in California

The chair of the University of California Board of Regents said he’s open to considering dramatic cuts in the number of armed, sworn police officers across the system. (Open Campus/CalMatters)

Pell changes could mean more eligible students, more money, more programs

As the needs of the post-pandemic economy evolve and with a new Democratic leadership, three new proposals could transform the Pell Grant program. (The Hechinger Report)

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