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Jill Biden acknowledges free community college has fallen out of her husband’s Build Back Better agenda

First lady Jill Biden speaks during a visit to Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J., on Jan. 20. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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First lady Jill Biden acknowledged Monday that two years of tuition-free community college is no longer part of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, telling a group of educators that she is “disappointed” that the provision was dropped because of “compromises” her husband must make.

The first lady addressed the status of the president’s sweeping social spending legislation during an appearance in Washington before the Community College National Legislative Summit, a gathering at which she delivered a more optimistic message a year ago.

“One year ago, I told this group that Joe was going to fight for community colleges,” Jill Biden told the group Monday. “But Joe has also had to make compromises. Congress hasn’t passed the Build Back Better agenda — yet. And free community college is no longer a part of that package.”

Jill Biden has for decades taught at community colleges and still does, at Northern Virginia Community College. She is the first first lady to work outside the White House in her professional career.

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“Of course, we share in Dr. Biden’s disappointment that the Build Back Better Act will not specify funding for College Promise programs,” Walter G. Bumphus, president and chief executive of the American Association of Community Colleges, said in a statement. “Despite that, there is profound recognition of the benefits of investing [in] the nation’s community colleges and the nearly 12 million students they serve. Community colleges are an engine for economic development and a wise investment at the local and federal level.”

President Biden said at a news conference last month that his Build Back Better legislation was not going to pass Congress intact, an acknowledgment of opposition to some provisions by two members of his party: Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Biden sounded an optimistic note: “I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest later.”

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His roughly $2 trillion package includes provisions that overhaul the nation’s health-care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws.

There has been little sign of recent progress, with no active negotiations between the White House and Manchin or Sinema. For the time being, Democrats lack the votes to pass anything without the help of Republicans, given that Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) is not expected to return for weeks, after a recent stroke.

The president is continuing to promote major parts of his agenda, however, in public appearances.

Community colleges, which offer two years of low-cost academic studies and skills training, have long been seen as gateways to higher education and an important part of the public education system in the United States. In fall of 2019, the most recent year for which the American Association of Community Colleges has data, community colleges enrolled 41 percent of all undergraduates nationally.

Enrollment has been declining in many of the country’s nearly 940 public community colleges in recent years, concerning educators and policymakers who fear that the career and education prospects for students, many of them from low- and moderate-income families, will be harmed.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in January that enrollment has fallen 13.2 percent at the nation’s public two-year colleges since 2019. And it has fallen almost 30 percent since 2011, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which monitors enrollment trends.

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Charlene Dukes, interim president of Montgomery College in Maryland, said that while the school was disappointed the Build Back Better legislation’s free-college provision did not survive, “we remain resolute in our commitment to ensure financial access to postsecondary education.”

“Attaining credentials that meet the growing and pivoting workforce demands is essential to economic opportunity,” Dukes said. “We will continue to be fierce advocates of policy that supports families and communities.”

In her speech Monday, Jill Biden pledged that her husband would continue his advocacy on behalf of community colleges.

“Governing does have one thing in common with sports,” she said. “When you get knocked down, you have to get back up. When you lose, you work harder and you come back for more.”

“Joe doesn’t quit. He doesn’t give up,” she said. “He is keeping his promise to rebuild our middle class, and he knows that community colleges do just that. He knows that you are our greatest resource and our best investment. He will keep fighting for us.”

Asked about the first lady taking the lead on the issue, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at her daily news briefing Monday that Jill Biden was “speaking from her heart about her view that free community college would benefit kids. Young people level the playing field across the country, something the president agrees with.”

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