Education Policy Politics and Governance

Assessing the Fallout of Democrats’ Failed Plans to Subsidize Community College

By Brittany Head

The ongoing partisan squeeze of the American Families Plan has pushed reform of the community college and public university system out of discussion in Congress. Democratic policy makers eliminated a provision to subsidize and support access to community college in the United States along with several other major policy proposals in the latest version of the Biden administration’s proposed American Families Plan. Democrats have once again turned their back on an important area of education reform in a move that will disappoint already underserved and disenchanted constituencies. 

Any sample of daily headlines underscores the reality that Democrats are experiencing an increasingly intense ideological existential crisis. The discord over legislative priorities in the party is unfolding at the expense of substantial and significant social programs. In the midst of a pandemic that has caused prolonged economic turbulence, Democrats find themselves at a crossroads of what to prioritize before their policymaking window of opportunity becomes vulnerable to expiration as midterms unfold in 2022. 

Scrutiny of the Biden administration’s capstone legislation package, which includes funding for housing, healthcare, and expanded child tax credits, has dominated political newstreams for the past few months. For students interested in attending community college, the original plan would have set aside $109 billion to eliminate tuition for two years of community college. 

The failure of the provision to subsidize community college raises important questions about the fabric and structure of the Democratic Party’s legislative priorities. Does removing provisions for subsidized community college from the package signal shifting priorities for an overextended Democratic administration? If not a global pandemic and rapidly shifting labor market conditions, what would catalyze a renewed emphasis on education among Democrats? 

While Democrats have acknowledged the significance of higher education as a policy priority for their base, only a small group of progressives have spearheaded the charge for restructuring higher education financing. For example, Senator Bernie Sanders—along with several other Democratic lawmakers—has proposed legislation for tuition-free public universities that would have required a $10 billion annual investment from the federal government. The legislation, mirroring comparable legislation in 2019 to reduce student loan debt, has failed to gain traction on either side of the political aisle. 

Within the existing realm of higher education, a substantial funding asymmetry delineates community colleges from four -year institutions. As of October 2020, community colleges received, on average, about $8,800 less in revenue per enrolled student than four-year institutions. Despite Democrats lauding subsidized community college as a normative goal, they  have not seized on an opportune moment to codify financial support at the federal level. The misalignment between public support  for  greater financial assistance for higher education and the absence of a defense of this provision from Democratic legislators raises concern about Democratic willingness to authentically and unequivocally support the needs of low- and middle-income Americans. 

Among U.S. adults surveyed, 63% support free college tuition at public universities, with support being even greater among communities of color. Despite the general consensus and momentum for financing community college, Democrats display a lukewarm willingness to advocate for its importance in the legislative process. There is also a significant bipartisan opportunity here, as 52% of Republicans who have not completed college also indicate support for eliminating tuition at public universities. 

Some states have taken matters into their own hands with higher education and workforce development initiatives. Texas’s 60×30 plan, for example, aims to substantially scale up the number of Texans with a professional credential or degree. The wide sweeping notion that college education translates into greater lifetime earnings ought to be filtered through the lens of economic barriers that restrict earnings for marginalized groups that would particularly benefit from greater financial assistance. Credentialing and education yield important economic benefits that Democrats have overlooked in their decision to scrap tuition-free pathways. For an administration struggling to gain legitimacy and consistent support from both Democrats and Republicans, another failed campaign promise will surely disenfranchise already cynical and frustrated voters. 

By disposing of provisions to financially support community college, Democratic lawmakers have compromised the possibility of improving access to workforce pathways. The growing gap between state and federal legislative initiatives to develop and strengthen multiple pathways to higher education creates a cacophony of strategic initiatives and legislation. State and local governments are becoming more keenly aware of the effect of postsecondary credentials on workforce development and labor market strength. Community college is an important tool for leveling up credentialing at state and local levels and enhancing socioeconomic mobility. 

While the final revisions of the American Families Plan are still unfolding, analysis of failed legislation can yield insights for future policymaking. Several fundamental flaws in the original draft of provisions for community college garnered criticism from lawmakers who were already hesitant about the plan. To convince wary lawmakers of the necessity of major social spending, legislative proposals have to be nearly airtight. Projected increases in revenue under the plan come at the expense of revenue lost as a result of the expansion of tax credits. The current decentralized structure of tax benefits is not robust enough to support the affordability of college or capture individuals on the fence about attending college. 

There is still a glimmer of hope embedded in the Build Better Back Compromise with $40 billion in proposed funding for higher education, but Democrats need to get on the same page to develop a proposal that would appease their fiscally conservative colleagues. Large groups of Americans are growing increasingly dissatisfied with marginal gains in deeply broken social systems. Economic inequities do not occur in a vacuum, and responsible policymakers ought to craft legislation that reflects the interconnectedness of social problems. Students whose futures depend on a strong and equitable education system do not have time to waste. 

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