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Higher education leaders praise Biden’s tuition-free college plan: ‘A revolutionary proposal’

Plan would cover two years of tuition at community colleges, minority-serving institutions; increase Pell grants

President Biden speaks at the White House on Tuesday. His American Families Plan would spend roughly $302 billion over 10 years to expand access to quality higher education. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan could deliver a monumental shift in the financing of higher education to the benefit of institutions and students with the fewest financial resources.

The plan released Wednesday would cover two years of tuition at community colleges and extend the same benefit to low- and middle-income students attending historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions. It would also up the maximum Pell grant for students in financial need by $1,400 that — on top of a $400 increase in the 2022 budget proposal — would bring the award to $8,295 a year.

White House proposes $1.8 trillion package that would dramatically expand education, safety net programs

Altogether, the Biden administration would spend roughly $302 billion over 10 years to expand access to quality higher education with the proposed investments to improve academics and graduation rates, increase Pell and subsidize tuition.

The scope and structure of the plan would place more of the cost of educating and training Americans at the college level on the federal government than on families. It is less ambitious than Biden’s campaign promise of making public four-year colleges tuition-free for many Americans and doubling the Pell grant, but higher education leaders say it is still a significant step in the right direction.

“President Biden’s plan to invest in America’s most resilient students is the right recipe to speed the post-pandemic economic recovery for working-class Americans,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges System.

The nation’s more than 950 community colleges have historically played a key role in helping people upgrade skills and résumés when the economy sinks, but the schools have suffered the greatest enrollment losses in this downturn.

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Ortiz Oakley and other community college leaders say the populations they serve are making tough choices to prioritize their basic needs over their education. Student advocates say making tuition universally affordable, however, could ameliorate those concerns.

There are complexities to the Biden proposal that could limit its reach. The administration is using the average community college tuition nationwide as the base for divvying up the expense. The federal government would pony up 75 percent of that average, with states covering the remaining quarter. States with higher-than-average community college tuition would have to spend more to make tuition free and some may opt out.

But federal dollars to support a policy that is increasingly popular at the state level is a powerful incentive. There are 30 states that already cover tuition at community colleges or universities. College promise programs, as tuition-free initiatives are commonly known, have resonated with elected leaders across the political spectrum.

Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education, welcomed the American Families Plan as a “fully certified innovation,” saying the community college plan could “easily revolutionize access to higher education in the United States.”

But he added: “As with any revolutionary proposal, there are lots of questions and details that need to be resolved.”

The American Families Plan would also commit a tremendous amount of federal resources to minority-serving institutions, in a bid to reach disadvantaged students at the schools that welcome them the most.

“We produce more Black graduates in engineering, agricultural sciences and, at the master’s level, mathematics and statistics, of any university in America,” Harold L. Martin, chancellor of North Carolina A&T State University, the nation’s largest historically Black university. “With these investments, we and other HBCUs would be prepared to make even larger contributions.”

There are more than 800 colleges and universities considered “minority-serving” because of their history, control or student body, according to the latest available data from the Education Department. Most of these schools have smaller endowments and institutional resources than their peers and educate a disproportionately large share of students from lower-income households.

While there are existing federal programs to support Tribal Colleges, historically Black schools and Hispanic-serving institutions, advocates say more investment is needed to promote equity.

A steady stream of Latino students was arriving on college campuses. Then the pandemic hit.

Deborah A. Santiago, chief executive of the nonprofit advocacy group Excelencia in Education, said Biden’s proposal “sends a powerful signal to support historically underserved communities and the institutions that disproportionately enroll them.”

At Norfolk State University in Virginia, more than 90 percent of students require some form of financial aid to complete their degree program, according to president Javaune Adams-Gaston. The legacy of disparity in state appropriations for public historically Black institutions like Norfolk has created institutional inequities and made it difficult to provide students the financial support they need.

“Though we have educated millions of highly successful alumni, we have always had to do more with less,” Adams-Gaston said. Biden’s plan “to help ease the financial burden on students and their families ... will help HBCUs continue to do what they do best — produce greatness.”

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To help its students stay on track, Norfolk State offers campus child care with the backing of federal grants. The demand for such services has grown as the population of college students includes more working parents and older adults. The administration’s plan to invest $62 billion to fund child care, emergency aid grants, mental health and other wraparound services is a recognition of the circumstances that can derail students from graduating.

Although the details of the proposed grant program are being hashed out, the White House said the money will go to colleges that serve high numbers of students from low-income households.

Trinity Washington University in D.C., where 70 percent of full-time undergraduates come from families earning less than $50,000, could benefit from the investment and others on the table. Because the majority of Trinity’s 1,500 undergrads are Black or Hispanic, the school is also considered a minority-serving institution.

The Roman Catholic women’s college provides more than $13 million in scholarships and grants, but the support is not enough to meet the need, said Trinity President Patricia McGuire.

“Many of our students have to work long hours to pay for college expenses, and some have to stop out because of finances,” McGuire said. “A college degree is essential to move ahead in this region, and President Biden’s plan will ensure that low-income students have a real chance to move forward, which, in turn, will clearly promote racial and social equity.”