What Our Partners and Allies Think on Higher Education Aspects of the American Families Plan and Free College Momentum

Over the past week, four different proposals have been released that share a common goal: to make college affordable and accessible and prevent students from having to choose between obtaining higher education and going into debt, which has lifelong ramifications for many borrowers. All four proposals, the College for All Act, the Debt-Free College Act, the America’s College Promise Act, and the American Families’ Plan (AFP) free community college proposal, represent significant progress on the issue of college affordability, providing a critical complement to the important efforts to cancel student debt. They are a testament to the hard work that advocates have put into ending the student debt crisis and addressing its root causes. 

Most recently, the Biden-Harris administration released its American Families Plan (AFP), which proposes a new federal-state funding partnership, increased Pell grant funding, and significant investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Importantly, the AFP would make public community colleges free for students, while providing two years of subsidized tuition at HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs, a critical first step towards President Biden’s campaign commitment to achieve four years of debt-free higher education.

AAUP Government Relations Committee Chair John McNay:

“We’re pleased to see the Biden administration recognize that increasing access to college is a smart investment to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, can better meet the needs of their communities and families. This kind of reinvestment in our colleges as a public good is the first step towards realizing our larger vision of a New Deal for Higher Ed, which would allow us not only to train students for fulfilling and good-paying careers, but also strengthen civil society and make colleges a force for social, racial, and economic justice.

“A free community college degree is a good first step, but as this proposal moves through Congress, we encourage our leaders to expand financial support to more kinds of institutions. We’re pleased to see dramatic increases in funding for minority-serving institutions and in Pell Grants for low-income students, which will make meaningful progress towards equitable access to a college degree. However, more must be done. Public four-year institutions, particularly in rural areas, serve an incredibly important role in their communities, and deserve the sam level of financial support as community colleges.

“Finally, while this proposal is just at the start of its long path towards becoming law, we are disappointed in the lack of detail on how the American Families Plan will support the creation of good-paying union jobs with meaningful workplace protections at the colleges that will benefit from this funding. Currently, only about 20 percent of faculty at community colleges have the full benefits and job security that comes with a tenure-track appointment; the COVID-19 pandemic has seen significant layoffs and furloughs for instructors and university staff, despite the influx of federal funding in the CARES Act and subsequent legislation. As Congress takes up this proposal in the coming weeks, they must find ways to ensure that the American Families Plan supports employees at America’s colleges, by adding provisions to shift the higher education workforce from contingent labor to longer-term and tenure-track appointments with full benefits. This plan will fall short of the President’s goal to create good-paying jobs across America if it leaves out our teachers.”

Generation Progress Senior Director Charlotte Hancock on the slate of recent affordability proposals:

“Free college and student debt cancellation are critically needed and must go hand in hand to solve the student debt crisis. The recent windfall of affordability proposals is the result of the energy and momentum behind the movement to make college affordable, cancel student debt, and end the student debt crisis. All four proposals are based on a federal-state partnership, which is essential to addressing state disinvestment in public higher education—a primary cause of the crisis that the country faces today. They also all address the fact that students and borrowers of color have been disproportionately impacted by the student debt crisis by including crucial investments in historically underfunded HBCUs, minority-serving institutions, and community colleges, and expanding financial aid eligibility to DREAMers. 

Young people have been at the forefront of the fight to end the student debt crisis, and should take pride in the progress that these bills represent. The Biden-Harris administration should view the College for All Act and the Debt-Free College Act as signs support for the promises made during the campaign, use executive action to cancel student debt, and work with Congress to enact legislation that allows every student to access the degree or certification that’s right for them without financial barriers.”

“The proposals in the American Families Plan to increase the Pell Grant and to offer two years of free community college create new opportunities for students who want to pursue postsecondary education but who oftentimes lack the financial resources to do so. 

“Supporting community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and other Minority-Serving Institutions is a smart investment towards helping underrepresented groups access higher education, especially those who are often targeted by predatory for-profit institutions. 

“Student Defense supports the American Families Plan and President Biden’s efforts to grow educational attainment and close equity gaps — both critical to our recovery from the pandemic and the future of the American economy.”

Rise Cofounder and CEO Max Lubin:

“The Families Plan is an important first step towards President Biden’s promise of making public colleges and universities tuition-free. Our students are working hard to enact those promises into law and help millions of students pursue their dreams in college.”

Student Debt Crisis Executive Director Natalia Abrams:

“We are encouraged that free community college and support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions are included in the American Families Plan. We call on the President to take action on student debt to address the burden on students, families, and our economy.

“President Biden has taken many steps in the right direction in his first one hundred days. However, the President must meet the commitments he made as a candidate. He supported free public tuition at two and four-year colleges for families making less than $125,000 per year. He promised to double the Pell Grant. And he supported immediate student debt cancellation. The President can—and must—keep these promises.”

TICAS Associate Vice President Jessica Thompson:

“President Biden’s American Families Plan (AFP) takes a comprehensive approach to making college more affordable by creating a new federal-state funding partnership, boosting Pell Grant funding, and making significant investments in student success. The plan is a clear recognition that new investments in higher education are fundamental to advancing an equitable recovery and ensuring long-term prosperity and competitiveness for the United States.

“While these investments are historic, we encourage policymakers to go even further by including all public four-year colleges and doubling the maximum Pell Grant, which together would allow all students to access an affordable, high-quality higher education without relying on overly burdensome student debt.

“The AFP’s “free community college” proposal is a federal-state partnership to cover the cost of tuition and fees for all students, including DACA recipients, to complete a two-year degree or credential (students could use the benefit over the course of up to four years, depending on circumstances). The proposal also includes $62 billion to improve retention and completion at institutions that serve a high proportion of low-income students. These investments are key to ensuring students can afford not only to enroll, but to complete a credential and to realize the benefits of a college degree. We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration to ensure that specific funds are dedicated to scaling evidence-based comprehensive approaches to student success.

“The plan makes additional investments in historically under-funded institutions and recognizes the critical role of four-year Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) by subsidizing two years of tuition at these institutions for students from families making less than $125,000. The AFP also provides $5 billion to shore up institutional capacity at these schools. Collectively, such institutions currently serve more than two million students, representing nearly a quarter of total four-year undergraduate enrollment across the country.

“The American Families Plan also recognizes the critical importance of the Pell Grant program in helping low- and moderate-income students cover costs beyond tuition and fees. The plan proposes to boost the maximum award by approximately $1,400, building on the $400 increase previously proposed in President Biden’s discretionary budget request. The plan also extends grant eligibility to DACA recipients, a long overdue change. With an $1,800 total increase, the maximum Pell Grant would cover 37 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public institution, up from today’s historic low of 28 percent. This is a significant investment but falls short of what the President acknowledges is needed: to double the value of the maximum grant as quickly as possible.

“In the wake of the pandemic, the nation’s higher education system is at a crossroads. College is a key driver of economic mobility, but states have been disinvesting in public colleges for decades, driven in part by economic downturns, and the Pell Grant covers the lowest share of college costs in the program’s history. Students and families have been shouldering ever more of the cost, leading to burdensome student debt. Institutions that serve a high proportion of BIPOC students and low-income students are chronically under-resourced, hampering economic mobility.

“Now is the time for comprehensive solutions, and we hope to see the Biden Administration work with Congress to build on and implement today’s proposals.”

U.S. PIRG Higher Education Associate Zack Szlezinger:

“The Biden administration has taken strong actions to invest in students in his first 100 days in office, and we applaud the president’s move to increase the Pell Grant. This will allow millions of students to go to college with less of a reliance on student loans. However, the $1,400 increase to the maximum Pell Grant still falls short of President Biden’s campaign promise to double these grant allotments.

“Seven million students rely on Pell Grants. This used to be a huge lifeline because it once covered more than three-quarters of the average four-year college tuition. But now, even with a 20 percent increase, these grants will only cover just over a third of costs. This is just not enough for many Pell recipients to stay in school without struggling to pay for their tuition and fees as well as other expenses, such as housing, food and textbooks. Simply put, this program must keep up with the times. To make college affordable and accessible for all students, regardless of their families’ income, we urge the administration and Congress to make this announcement just a building block on the way to doubling Pell grants.”

Young Invincibles Senior Director of External Affairs Jesse Barba:

“Today the President kept his promise to build towards an equitable recovery where all Americans can thrive. The magnitude of this proposal, along with the American Jobs Plan, would dramatically reduce child poverty, expand educational opportunity, buoy households struggling to afford the basics, and give families the ability to take paid leave from work.

Young people in particular have a real fighting opportunity to grow, learn, and gain the skills they need to succeed in a more inclusive economy. Whether it is protecting the economic security of low-wage workers, investing in child care and an early education workforce, addressing food insecurity, or expanding access to education for all – this agenda has called for systemic changes and new investments.

But we can still make this plan stronger. The bill must include robust, permanent expansion in access to health coverage and provisions to reduce health care costs to meet the needs of young people. This is a once in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our nation’s future. The moment is now, and we urge Congress to act swiftly.”

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