Free community college plan forces states to increase funding

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America’s College Promise – the Democrat-backed plan to provide tuition fees to all community college students – could allow more than nine million students to pursue an associate’s degree for free.

States, on the other hand, will have to open their wallets.

As it stands, the promised program would be a five-year federal-state partnership. Over the course of the partnership, federal investment would decline steadily, starting at 100% in the first year and declining 5% in each consecutive year, leaving states to fund the rest.

Participating states would receive a dollar amount per student based on the national median tuition fees, under the proposed legislation. After accounting for inflation, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association estimated that the grant per student in the first year of the program would be $ 5,162, unweighted for enrollment.

The SHEO Analysis found that states will, on average, need to increase investments in higher education by 12%, or an average of $ 387 per full-time student, in order to opt for the program.

Twenty-one states have average tuition fees above the national median, which means those states will have to pay until that difference hits zero dollars. Up to 12 states would need to increase their funding by more than 15% by the 2023-24 academic year to be eligible, and seven states will need to increase their funding by more than 25%. Alaska, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and South Dakota are planning increases of more than 40%. Vermont faces a particularly large increase: To be eligible, it would have to increase funding for higher education by 142 percent.

States are likely divided into three categories, said Will Doyle, professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University. The first is made up of states where tuition fees are already low, such as California, where the potential benefits of the University Promise Plan will likely outweigh the additional costs of attending. The second group includes states that will need to provide additional funding, but not a substantial amount, Doyle said. Georgia falls into this category. The third group includes states that have invested significantly less in higher education and would need to significantly increase their spending on community colleges to be eligible for the College Pledges program.

If successful, the program would begin in the 2023-24 academic year.

“I expect that most of the first category states will participate, while some but not all of the intermediate category states will participate, and very few if any of the last category states will participate,” wrote Doyle in an email. “It’s hard to see how states could, in the short term, increase funding for community college students by 25%, even though many of them should. “

The maintenance of effort clause included in the legislation would require states to maintain institutional income, meaning that state officials cannot cut other parts of the higher education budget to make up for the game. federal.

“The way the sustainment provisions work in this area, they really can’t cut funding for anything,” said Jenna Sablan, senior policy analyst at SHEEO. “The only thing you can do is just increase overall state support.”

States also cannot use federal dollars to administer the money, which means any additional expense incurred in running the free tuition program will also be charged to the state budget, said Sophia Laderman, senior analyst. policies at SHHEEO.

Another potential problem is that there is no federal definition of a community college.

“We think we know what a community college is because we know the community college in our hometown or where we live,” Sablan said. “But because there is no consistent federal definition of a community college, the bill must, in the legislation, define what it is in order to properly identify the institutions that will get the funding. “

The legislation defines a community college as an institution where an associate’s degree is both the highest degree and the predominant degree awarded. This could include a high school campus of a four-year institution if it meets the other criteria, or a college within a four-year institution in a state that does not have another college that meets the criteria.

“There would be fairly large areas in the United States that wouldn’t have eligible institutions,” Laderman said.

Two-year colleges that only award certificates would be excluded from the program. The same would be true for four-year institutions that offer associate’s degrees, but more often grant bachelor’s degrees.

“From our reading of the bill, if a student is enrolled in a community college that offers associate’s degrees, but is enrolled in a qualifying certificate program, their tuition will be free,” he said. Laderman said. “So for these students, it just depends on the institution they go to. “

If the program is popular, it is unlikely to end after five years, Doyle said. He compared it to the Affordable Care Act.

“While I hesitate to make a firm prediction, I would say it is very difficult for the federal government to reap benefits like this once in place, largely because these programs create their own constituency,” wrote Doyle.


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