In my long search for educators with the deepest understanding of what works for students from low-income families, few have impressed me as much as Eric Wolf Welch of Justice High School in Fairfax County, Va.

He is a veteran teacher who manages the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program at that school. Sixty-six percent of Justice High students are impoverished, the highest percentage in Northern Virginia. AVID is one of the nation’s most effective efforts to raise the level of instruction for low-income middle and high school students.

So I was startled to discover that Welch does not support President Biden’s plan to provide billions of dollars in funding to community colleges to make them tuition free.

“The idea on the surface sounds logical,” Welch told me. “Community colleges serve thousands, often students from low-income backgrounds like my students, and they can be an avenue toward attaining a higher education degree and the benefits that come with that. But what Biden’s plan does is lower expectations for millions of students in poverty across the nation. Why should our goal for low-income students be community college? The goal for all students should be college.”

Biden campaigned for no tuition at both two-year community colleges and four-year colleges, but his focus in the plan he unveiled in April is on the two-year variety. He wants about $109 billion more for them compared with $80  billion more for Pell Grants that could be used to reduce tuition at four-year schools.

Welch wants the emphasis to be instead on increasing Pell Grants and other ways to get students into four-year schools. “Making community colleges free while not increasing aid to pay for four-year colleges will intensify the socioeconomic divide in America,” he said. “Low-income students will be relegated to attend community colleges, while more affluent families will send their children directly to four-year colleges.”

“The four-year college experience will be for the haves, while the community college experience will be for the have-nots,” he said. “Some may say this is already the case. But we should not exacerbate it with a government incentive for low-income students to choose to go to community colleges.”

Biden’s “American Families Plan” acknowledges that Pell Grants have failed to give students like Welch’s enough support. “Over the last 50 years, the value of Pell Grants has plummeted,” it says. “The maximum grant went from covering nearly 80 percent of the cost of a four-year college degree to under 30 percent — leading millions of low-income students to take out debt to finance their education.”

Community college has been a vital part of American culture for nearly a century. Both of my parents attended Long Beach (Calif.) City College in the 1930s. My mother went on to get a bachelor’s degree at UCLA. My father failed to get that degree but found work as a technical writer for a federal lab on the strength his Army service in World War II. Much of my brother’s career was as a community college staffer.

Community colleges are a key part of our education system, but Welch points out they have not done much for families who lack the resources of middle-class Mathewses. “Look at the three-year graduation rates of major community college systems in the D.C. area,” Welch said. “Northern Virginia Community College [NOVA] is 26 percent. Montgomery College is 21 percent. Prince George’s Community College is 11 percent.”

Middle-class families don’t think about that much, he said, because community colleges are rarely part of their plans. Barack and Michelle Obama’s children did not go to community colleges. “I’m sure the thought never crossed their minds,” Welch said. “Nor did Biden’s children and grandchildren. This is what makes Biden’s plan rather condescending and why it is wrong. It institutionalizes class divisions and does not promote equal opportunity.”

One of my best friends in high school went to our local community college, where he was elected student body president, on his way to becoming a physician. But even then he was considered extremely abnormal in our crowd.

Welch cites the overall graduation rates of the four-year schools that have done well for his students: 85 percent at Virginia Tech, 82 percent at James Madison, 73 percent at George Mason, 90 percent at Colgate, 96 percent at Duke.

“The data is overwhelmingly clear that four-year colleges allow students to pursue careers that lead to much higher lifelong incomes,” he said.

There is an additional problem with community colleges. They often do a poor job guiding students to courses that will get them transfers to four-year schools. I once suggested solving that problem before eliminating two-year college tuition, which now averages about $3,400 a year. But Welch’s emphasis on getting more students directly into four-year schools makes more sense.

Putting all that money into community colleges, he said, “will make my job harder as I can already hear my students saying, ‘I’m going to NOVA because it’s free,’ putting aside any aspirations of attending a four-year college.”

Free college is a simple, powerful campaign slogan. But people like Welch who work every day with students from non-college backgrounds know it can be a harmful distraction. I hope such experts in our high schools will have more influence on the Biden administration than they have had up to now.