America's College Promise

Moving America’s College Promise Ahead

By Dennis Pierce

How community colleges can support this bill and encourage its advancement through Congress.

Earlier this month, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced legislation that advances President Barack Obama’s goal of making community college available free of charge to all eligible students. How can community colleges support this bill, and what are its chances of being enacted?

Martha Parham, vice president of marketing and public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), says the association will soon release a toolkit with advice to help campus leaders discuss America’s College Promise Act in their communities.

In the meantime, she says, “I think it’s important for community college leaders to talk about their successes … [and how] education offers a path to the middle class. It’s an investment that has a clear, positive economic impact.”

Parham notes that many community colleges have created similar scholarship programs of their own, offering high school graduates a chance to attend a two-year college at no cost. In supporting America’s College Promise Act, she says, campus leaders can point to those programs and the successes they have achieved.

Beyond America’s College Promise

AACC endorses America’s College Promise Act, which would authorize $79.7 billion over the next 10 years to provide free community college tuition to eligible students. Funds would be awarded to states, which would have to apply.

States would have to commit to a “maintenance of effort” that equals or exceeds their average spending on public higher education for the prior three years; they would also have to provide a 25 percent match. Available funds would be distributed to states according to their proportion of eligible students nationally.

Only first-time college students who maintain satisfactory academic progress would be eligible, and students would have to be enrolled on at least a half-time basis. In a departure from President Obama’s original proposal, the bill would require students to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average — the minimum for Pell Grant eligibility — instead of a 2.5 GPA.

Another way the bill differs from the president’s proposal is financial eligibility: While the administration proposed limiting eligibility to students from households making less than $200,000 per year, America’s College Promise Act sets no such cap. As a result, the bill would be more expensive than the president’s original plan.

Support at the federal and state levels

As of press time, the bill had 14 co-sponsors in the Senate and 65 in the House of Representatives — but none of them were Republicans.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, believes the bill is not necessary because states have the capacity to create their own last-dollar scholarship programs — provided the federal government simplifies the financial-aid process so more students who qualify for Pell grants can receive them.

Alexander points to his own state’s scholarship program, Tennessee Promise, as a model that other states can follow without a significant increase in federal spending.

“The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done,” he said in a statement. “Then, instead of creating a new federal program, the federal government can help in two ways: First, reduce federal paperwork [that] discourages 2 million Americans from applying for federal Pell grants that are already available to help pay community college tuition. Second, pay for the millions of new Pell grants that will be awarded … if Congress [does this].”

Other congressional Republicans have expressed concerns that increasing the nation’s investment in education would simply encourage community colleges to raise tuition.

A representative from Baldwin’s office says the senator introduced America’s College Promise Act to begin a discussion in Congress about making community college more affordable and is open to exploring ways of moving the bill forward.

AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus notes that Tennessee has developed a successful model to increase access for students that meet certain criteria. “That model can be replicated in some states and is to be commended,” he says. “[But] for many community college students, tuition is only one barrier to access. We will continue to advocate for America’s College Promise as a first-dollar solution that allows students in all states to cover tuition — while saving other resources to pay basic living expenses.”

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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