Building Back Better with Community Colleges

Biden's plan to center racial equity in economic recovery runs right through community colleges.
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July 31, 2020

The 2020 presidential election is less than 100 days away, and Americans are keen to know how the remaining candidates plan to shepherd the country through to the other side of the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis. This week, Joe Biden released part of his “Build Back Better” agenda which includes a litany of proposals to reinvigorate the economy while centering equity for minoritized people of color. Here’s a recap of three the aspects of Biden’s plan that focus on community colleges and the critical role they play in higher education access and economic opportunity.

Tuition-free community college (the right way): Biden’s agenda proposes up to two years of tuition-free community college or training for wide swaths of Americans. (We’re still a little sketchy on eligibility details, but that’s to be expected at this point.) Biden’s plan is clear that these funds will be first-dollar, meaning they apply towards students’ cost of college before any other aid. That means students who qualify for Pell grants, state grants, or any other scholarships can use those funds to meet their cost of living, reducing or eliminating many students’ need to borrow. This would be huge for community college students and a great recruitment tool for folks on the fence about attending or returning to college. In the last 5-10 years, several states and localities have started college promise programs that ensure students’ tuition is covered. However, most of those aren’t first dollar, which means Pell and other aid gets burned up first, and the college promise program only covers what’s left of tuition. That means students are still left having to cover all their cost of living from other sources, often loans and/or a lot of work hours, which is an especially raw deal for low-income students. And in light of racial wealth gaps and higher borrowing and default rates for Black students in particular, last-dollar promise programs can be a pretty raw deal for students of color too. But Biden’s plan gets free community college right, very much in keeping with President Obama’s America’s College Promise initiative from 2015.

Biden’s proposed initiative also takes a welcome step further. Students can also access up to two years of tuition support in training programs outside of community colleges with good completion and labor market outcomes. The Biden proposal particularly highlights Registered Apprenticeships as another option with strong outcomes that would qualify for support under this initiative.

To sum up, Americans would have a lot of local education and training options for which they could receive significant financial support and could combine this support with other grants and scholarships in a way that’s particularly helpful for low-income students.

Supporting students beyond tuition: The Biden campaign is right when they point out that students need resources and support that extend well beyond tuition to make it through college. The Build Back Better agenda would “give states financial incentives” to build collaboration between community organizations and colleges with the aim of making services like child care, mental health care, and transportation more accessible for students. It’s not clear how much money we’re talking about here or how exactly the state financial incentives would work, but it’s great to see the Biden campaign recognizing the importance of investing in student services that help keep students enrolled and, more importantly, help keep students well and healthy while they’re in college. We’ll look forward to more details as time goes on.

Investing in workforce training: For workforce development, the campaign is clear about how much a Biden administration would aim to invest. And it’s a lot. The Biden agenda outlines a $50 billion investment in community college-industry partnerships, apprenticeships, and other workforce training. This would truly represent a historic influx of support into the nation’s community colleges and other high-quality training providers and, for community colleges, is especially needed as state higher education funding is in a crunch due to the pandemic.

For comparison, during the Great Recession the Obama administration oversaw a $2 billion investment in community colleges in the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program. Our team has been researching the outcomes of the TAACCCT program for years, and we can say that this investment in building and strengthening workforce training programs made a positive difference for students. Last year, we published a meta-analysis of TAACCCT outcomes, which showed that participants were almost twice as likely to earn a credential than comparison students, and about 30 percent more likely to either get a job or a wage gain. With over 30 million Americans filing unemployment claims in mid-July, investing heavily in high-quality, industry-valued training and credentials can provide what these working age adults need to transition back into a changing labor market. And Biden is clearly willing to work from a similar, but updated playbook in the current crisis.

There’s a lot for community colleges to love in the Biden “Build Back Better” agenda that is specifically designed to foster equity. Amid all the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis have brought, the commitment to invest strongly in community colleges and other workforce training will be very welcome to these institutions and the communities they serve.

Related Topics
Workforce Development & CTE Higher Education Funding and Financial Aid