House, Senate Introduce Legislation To Cover The Cost Of Community College

Back in January, the White House proposed a plan to help offset the increasing cost of higher education for millions of prospective students: Offer free community college. Yesterday, companion bills introduced in the House and Senate take that idea and make it a reality.

The legislation, known as America’s College Promise Act of 2015 [PDF], would waive two years of tuition at community colleges across the country for eligible individuals, whether they are recent high school graduates or years removed from an academic setting.

Under the act, the federal government would provide a match of $3 for every $1 invested by states to waive tuition and fees at community, technical and tribal colleges.

Sponsors of the bills – authored by Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin and Virginia Representative Bobby Scott – say it gives the opportunity for access quality and affordable higher education and provides a pathway for low-income students to obtain a four-year degree.

“Students and families are faced with the overwhelming burden of figuring out how to pay for college,” Rep. Scott said in a statement. “America’s College Promise is a step in the right direction to help families gain access to quality, affordable higher education opportunities.”

Students eligible to receive tuition assistance under the Act must be first-time students enrolled at least half-time at a community college. Students must also maintain satisfactory academic progress as it aligns with requirements under the Pell Grant program.

In addition to making access to community college more readily available to students, the legislation would also establish a grant program to help to cover the first two years of tuition for low-income students who attend qualifying minority-serving institutions, such as historically black colleges, Hispanic serving institutions, and other institutions.

The Act would establish benchmarks to ensure that programs covered under the tuition waivers offer academic credits that are fully transferable to four-year institutions in their state, or occupational training that leads to credentials in an in-demand industry.

America’s College Promise Act was inspired partially by the President’s previously announced plan as well as similar state programs – Tennessee Promise and Oregon Promise – that cover the remaining cost of tuition at community college tuition for eligible students after all federal student aid is applied.

The emergence of programs that offer to cover the expense of higher education come at a time when the cost of a college education has outpaced inflation for the last few decades, making school less affordable for millions of Americans and driving student loan debt past the $1 trillion mark.

At the same time, the for-profit college industry has prospered in the last decade, taking in many billions of dollars in federal student aid for schools with high dropout rates.

“Higher education should be a path to shared prosperity, not a path into suffocating debt,” Sen. Baldwin says in a statement. “But unfortunately, college costs and student loan debt are holding back an entire generation and creating a drag on economic growth for our country. America needs to out-educate the rest of the world in order to better compete in a 21st century, skills based economy.”

The Association of Community College Trustees was quick to applaud the new legislation, saying it highlights the need for additional investment in and resources provided to America’s community colleges.

“ACCT supports the proposed legislation, which is a tremendous vote of confidence that recognizes the economic, educational, and societal value our colleges contribute to the nation and which would guarantee unprecedented access to higher education for all Americans,” the organization said in a statement.

America’s College Promise Act is co-sponsored by more than 60 members of the House and Senate, and endorsed by several consumer advocacy groups and organizations.

Sens. Baldwin, Booker and Rep. Scott Introduce America’s College Promise Act to Make Higher Education More Accessible and Affordable [Sen. Tammy Baldwin]