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American Families Plan outlines investments for human side of nation’s competitiveness

April 29, 2021
By: Mark Skinner

In 2014, Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, created the nation’s first program to ensure high school graduates could attend community and technical college tuition-free, Tennessee Promise.  While several states have followed suit in one form or another, President Joe Biden wants to take the concept nationwide with the federal government footing $109 billion of the bill through his American Families Plan. Announced during his first address to Congress on April 28, free community college was just one of the proposals outlined that could dramatically alter regional capacities to support innovation, entrepreneurship and competitiveness across the country.

In addition, Biden is asking Congress to make an $80 billion-plus investment in Pell Grants, which would help low-income students seeking a certificate or a two- or four-year degree by increasing the grant size by up to $1,400. Recognizing that access to postsecondary education is not enough, the American Families Plan includes $62 billion to invest in evidence-based strategies to strengthen completion and retention rates at community colleges and institutions that serve students from our most disadvantaged communities. Funding would support grants to colleges for efforts such as wraparound services ranging from child care 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.

This is alongside a $46 billion investment requested to subsidize enrollment and instructional aid to students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and institutions such as Hispanic-serving institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

To make it easier for parents of young children, particularly single parents and mothers, to participate in the innovation economy, the American Families Plan calls for federal investment in universal pre-school for three- and four-year olds, paid leave, and $225 billion to provide greater access to affordable, high-quality childcare.

The tuition-free community college proposal is most likely to have the quickest impact on developing a skilled workforce, reducing overall costs of higher education and creating pathways to  manufacturing and STEM jobs that do not require four-year or advanced degrees.  It also could change the student experience, structure and economic profile of America’s four-year colleges and universities, including our top research institutions.

The $109 billion plan would ensure that first-time students and workers wanting to reskill can enroll in a community college to earn a degree or credential for free. Students could use the benefit over three years and, if circumstances warrant, up to four years, recognizing that many students’ lives and other responsibilities can make full-time enrollment difficult. If all states, territories, and Tribes participate, about 5.5 million students would pay $0 in tuition and fees.

The focus of early criticism has been largely related to paying the hefty price tag involved in the aggregate investments — $2 trillion — rather than the merits of the individual proposals outlined above and others in the plan.  More information on the Biden administration’s American Families Plan is available here.

community college, free tuition