President Joseph R. Biden conceded in a town hall last week that tuition-free community college would be among the many policies dropped or scaled back in the Democrats' Build Back Better Agenda, thanks to the opposition of moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
This is a missed opportunity. The modest costs of tuition-free community college would have been fully paid for by slightly higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans and greater economic productivity from a more educated workforce. Yet an enduring and unfair stigma against community colleges makes it difficult to advocate for them.
From an early age, a mindset of educational elitism tries to convince us that an objective hierarchy of schools exists, with the Ivies at the top and community colleges at the very bottom, just below clown schools. The truth is that there are many equally valid paths available to anyone interested in higher education.
When I graduated high school, I enrolled in Middlesex College because it was an incredibly affordable way to receive the same exact general education credits which would have cost nearly $16,000 a year at Rutgers. Even so, I often felt embarrassed to tell people where I was studying, knowing the assumptions others would make: “Community colleges are for the stupid, the lazy and the unmotivated.”
A lot of the stigma around community colleges comes from their inclusivity. You cannot be rejected as long as you meet basic requirements, such as living in the area. There is no prestige in getting accepted if everyone is, but prestige is not the point of getting an education.
Education is about broadening your perspectives and preparing yourself for the world. In that sense, community colleges are great places to discover what it is you truly want to do with your life.
Compared to giant universities like Rutgers, community colleges often rely more on full-time teaching professors with smaller class sizes. It is easier to access one-on-one services like career counseling or mental health care.
Although the median graduate of a four-year university out-earns the median community college graduate, they still earn far more than someone with no degree at all.
As more people recognize the astronomical cost of higher education, the stigma is starting to decline. The foundation of clubs such as the Rutgers Transfer Student Association shows that old stereotypes do not need to last forever.
Federal policy must accommodate this shift. Despite being cheaper than four-year universities, community colleges can still cost thousands of dollars a year. Fees, books, transportation, housing and other expenses beyond tuition can pile up quickly.
Community colleges serve a disproportionately high share of non-traditional students, from single parents to senior citizens, from veterans to people with GEDs. Many students are already working full-time and cannot afford classes amid all their other responsibilities.
Tuition-free community college is a no-brainer.
The original plan in the Build Back Better Agenda costs only $109 billion over the next decade, which works out to approximately $3.52 per adult per month.
Even that is overstating the burden on the average American because it would have actually been funded by slightly higher taxes on billionaires and increased economic growth from a more educated workforce.
Needless to say, the shrinking of the Build Back Better Agenda has been demoralizing — not just on community colleges, but on everything from the child tax credit expansion to efforts to combat climate change.
It is easy to blame the reckless and arbitrary demands of Manchin and Sinema — largely because they are, in fact, to blame. In their quest to build back worse, the two senators insist on an underfunded and underwhelming bill delivering higher child poverty, higher carbon dioxide emissions, fewer affordable homes, more expensive childcare and more expensive prescription drugs than the plan supported by literally all other Democrats and a majority of the American people.
Manchin and Sinema ask the questions nobody else dares to ask, like, "What if we just took the existing bill but made sure fewer people benefit from it and cut out the most popular provisions?"
If they do not learn to compromise with the overwhelming consensus of the Democratic Party, the whole country will suffer the consequences.
Winston Churchill famously said of the Royal Air Force during WWII that "Never in the field of human conflict was so much been owed by so many to so few." Sadly, today, never in the field of public policy was so much owed to so many by so few.
Anger, no matter how well-justified, and arguments, no matter how well-reasoned, may not persuade them. There is still one bright spot, though. States can make community colleges more attractive and affordable regardless of what Congress does.
Look no further than New Jersey's Community College Opportunity Grant, which has made community college tuition-free for students earning less than $65,000 a year. A few conservative states have similar guarantees, including the Tennessee Promise program.
Higher education is an investment in our future, both on an individual and a societal level. If the federal government cannot recognize that, it is good to know that at least some states do.
Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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