President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, released last month, includes $12 billion for community colleges to address technological needs, help protect the health and safety of students and faculty, and narrow funding inequities.
It also calls for two years of free tuition at community colleges, one of many parts of Biden’s proposal seen by many Republicans in Congress as too expensive and an inappropriate expansion of government’s role in society.
“Research shows, when a young child goes to school — not day care — they’re far more likely to graduate from high school and go to college or something after high school,” Biden said in his joint speech to Congress on April 28. “When you add two years of free community college on top of that, you begin to change the dynamic. We can do that."
Community colleges offer an easier and less expensive pathway to higher education than most four-year colleges. Many do not require standardized admissions tests, like SATs and ACTs, and some do not require English-language proficiency, which is key for many international students.
Community colleges typically receive less state funding than four-year institutions, said Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees, a nonprofit organization that oversees community colleges.
“So what this plan does is it tries to compensate, to some extent, the fact that we’ve been underfunded and under-resourced as a sector,” Brown said.
The cost of tuition at the average community college has risen 46%, compared with a 76% rise among public universities in the past two decades, according to EducationData.org. That translates to between $4,000 and $10,000 a year, depending on the state, for community college, compared with an average $35,720 per student per year for four-year institutions.
Outside those averages, the most prestigious or expensive four-year universities can cost upward of $100,000 a year for tuition and fees.
Brown said the current infrastructure proposal would benefit community colleges that have aging buildings.
“Many of them have been built in the ’60s or ’70s, so their physical plants are aging and have a lot of infrastructure challenges,” Brown said. “So we certainly welcome the proposal of $12 billion to address those needs.”
However, some four-year universities that have struggled financially during the pandemic object to the plan.
While it is a boost for community colleges, Jon Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, wrote that he would like to see “a bit more investment in four-year colleges and universities.”
“While no one argues about the needs that exist at community colleges in the infrastructure space, there are lots of four-year institutions that similarly were impacted by the pandemic, similarly are under-resourced and could really use the support,” Fansmith said in Inside Higher Ed on April 1.
Colleges and universities are worried about enrollment declines as students and families face economic and educational pressures during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Pete Boyle, vice president of public affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
“We need to be certain that we are not incentivizing students toward institutions that are not the best fit for them to realize their educational goals,” he said.
Biden’s infrastructure proposal includes plans to give $50 billion to the National Science Foundation and $40 billion to the nation’s research facilities. Out of the $40 billion, $20 billion will be given to historically black colleges and universities.
Minority-serving institutions would receive an additional $10 billion in research and development, while another $15 billion would be devoted to "centers of excellence" that would function as incubators for startups and training programs for students in science and engineering fields.
First lady Jill Biden, who is a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, will help with the plan, the president said.
“ ‘Any country that outeducates us is going to outcompete us,’ ” Biden said, quoting the first lady. “She’ll be deeply involved in leading this effort.”
Biden’s proposal is being debated in Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she would like to see the plan approved by members by July 4, according to The Associated Press.