Free Community College Out of Build Back Better Legislation
WASHINGTON — First Lady Jill Biden announced on Monday that plans for two years of tuition-free community college are no longer part of Democrats’ social spending package.
Although she was disappointed that the community college provisions had to be cut out of the proposal in order to salvage its passage in the Senate, the first lady said other provisions to bolster support for students and families were still legislative priorities for Democrats. Access to high-speed internet, affordable prescription drugs, more Pell Grants, economical child care and universal preschool are some of the proposals included in the president’s Build Back Better agenda.
“One year ago, I told this group that Joe was going to fight for community colleges,” she said at the Community College National Legislative Summit in Washington. “But Joe has also had to make compromises. Congress hasn’t passed the Build Back Better legislation yet. And free community college is no longer a part of that package.”
While it may seem unusual for the announcement to come from the first lady, she made free community college provisions her signature legislative initiative upon entering the White House’s East Wing. The first lady is a longtime community college professor who teaches English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College.
President Biden’s initial proposal would have allocated $109 billion toward two years of free community college for eligible students, although that figure was eventually cut to $45.5 billion before finally being scrapped altogether. Negotiations on the bill stalled late last year after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., publicly made his opposition known, as previously reported in The Well News.
Despite promising to provide Americans two years of free community college as part of the American Families Plan outlined in April, President Joe Biden informed lawmakers in October that free community college provisions were expected to be dropped from the Build Back Better package. Additional proposals of Biden’s American Families Plan include investments for low- and middle-income students, particularly those attending historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions.
Free tuition for so-called “Dreamers” — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, who migrated to the country as children — was also part of the initial proposals. While the pared-down version of the Build Back Better framework that passed the House in November didn’t include tuition-free community college, advocates had hoped the proposals might be reintroduced during the bill’s Senate negotiations, which so far have been unsuccessful.
“We knew that this wasn’t going to be easy,” Jill Biden said on Monday. “Joe always said that. Still — like you — I was disappointed because these aren’t just bills or budgets to me. We know what they mean for real people, for our students. And it was a real lesson in human nature that some people just don’t get that.”
Last week, Manchin told reporters on Capitol Hill that the current version of the Build Back Better bill was dead but expressed openness to a new round of White House negotiations. Manchin’s disapproval has impeded a number of his party’s other legislative priorities as well, such as curbing the filibuster, expanding the child tax credit and instituting clean-energy programs.
Manchin has cited rising inflation rates and the growing national debt as his primary objections to the Build Back Better bill’s provisions. However, the Biden administration’s economic advisors have long contended rising rates of inflation are a global issue related to the COVID-19 pandemic rather than a result of the administration’s spending programs.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published data in November that showed inflation had increased in each of its member countries as the global economy continued to rebound from COVID-19-related hindrances. In December, The Well News reported on an analysis published by Third Way that projected families would have their child care and health costs lowered by thousands of dollars once the Build Back Better Act’s provisions were fully phased in.
Jill Biden also said during Monday’s community college summit that the administration would continue to push for free assistance for community college students regardless of its incorporation into the Build Back Better agenda. Democrats may continue to push for the initiatives by adding them to other related bills and passing them separately.
Reece can be reached at [email protected]