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Trimming their social agenda, Democrats cut the proposal of free community college


Free community college was one of President Biden's big campaign promises. It was also one of the first proposals that got dropped as Democrats began to negotiate and trim their social agenda in Congress. That program would have made community colleges tuition-free for the next five years. And although the national effort failed, various free college programs do exist in almost every state. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us now to tell us more. Hey, Elissa.


CHANG: All right, so let's just start with the obituary part of this. What did this now dead plan look like?

NADWORNY: So the plan called for the federal government to give billions of dollars to states each year in exchange for the state to eliminate tuition and fees at their community colleges. It was expected to be a real boon for the economy. According to a review by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, free community college would have boosted the GDP by roughly $170 billion per year.

CHANG: Wow. Well, we did mention that nearly every state does have some kind of free college program. Can you just talk about how those programs work exactly?

NADWORNY: That's right. There are more than 300 free college or, as they're often called, promise programs throughout the U.S. at the state or local level in places like Dallas, Kalamazoo, Mich., El Dorado, Ark. And that 300-plus number is up from about 50 programs just six years ago. Here's Rosye Cloud, a leader at College Promise, a national organization that tracks many of those programs.

ROSYE CLOUD: When you look at these promise programs, you really feel the community support behind it. So it's - the movement is still alive and well.

NADWORNY: So promise programs can look really different depending on where you live. But at a minimum, their goal is to make two-year tuition-free community college a reality, and they use a mix of federal, state, local, public and private funding to do that.

CHANG: OK. Wait, so what I don't get is if these free college programs have been successful at the local and state levels, why did this program fail at the federal level, you think?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So a lot of that is politics. So in terms of real people, free college is actually really popular.

CHANG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: And at the local and state level, it's actually a bipartisan issue. Rosye Cloud called it a purple issue. So in communities, free college is much more about the economic, the workforce program because community colleges are where local people are trained to get jobs. And without that, local businesses suffer, states suffer. At the national level, it can sometimes be seen as a handout or a gift, rather than an economic return on investment.

CHANG: OK. But let me ask you, if we already do have all these individual programs, why would we even need a national one?

NADWORNY: Yeah. OK, so there's three big reasons. One is funding. The federal government can put in money that states and localities just can't. Two, it's this idea that geography would no longer dictate if you had a free college program nearby. And then three is messaging. So for a lot of students, they don't know until the last minute how much, if anything, college will cost because they're piecing together a bunch of different things, filling out different financial aid forms, applying to scholarships. The value of a tuition-free program, especially a federal tuition-free program, is that it's in the name, right? Like, it's free. And research has shown that messaging is key. If students and families are clear that tuition is free, it changes the way they make decisions. I talked about this with Emily House. She's the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. And Tennessee has had a statewide free college program since 2015.

EMILY HOUSE: It's really changed over the past six years, the ways that students and their families talk about going to college. It's not kind of a can I or should I go to college in many cases anymore. It's an I will go to college and this is what I will do because it's tuition-free.

NADWORNY: The other thing is that running behind all of this is just the dramatic drop in enrollment that community colleges have seen since the start of the pandemic. They're down about 14%. And so many were hoping that national investment in community colleges would not only give a big boost to colleges but would help students make the decision to get that extra credential and job training because we know the value that college provides.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny talking about the failed national plan for free community college. Thank you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.