The Democrats’ "megabill" is racing toward the finish line - even if the latest headlines say House Democrats aren't yet on board. The bill has been significantly cut back, but still, anyone who balances a budget knows that you shouldn’t spend money you don’t have - e.g. $1.75 trillion. (US debt is expected to reach $89 trillion by 2029, in case you were wondering).
As Senate Democrats worked to strike a deal - ironically with the Democrats farthest to the right, rather than the actual Right, I was disappointed to see what made the cut (e.g. extending the childcare tax credit sans work requirement) - but also disappointed that the promise of free community college did not.
I fundamentally believe that instead of depositing checks directly into Americans’ bank accounts, our federal government should give people a push in the right direction; the tools and training they need to secure a sustainable income and support their families.
Therefore, out of all the items crammed into this social programs + climate + infrastructure bill, free community college seemed like a pretty good use of government funds – and I found it surprising that our lawmakers disagreed.
I’ve seen firsthand the power of education. My grandparents were immigrants, and although they had been wealthy and educated in Europe, arrived penniless in New York City after World War II. My grandmother worked a brief stint in a belt factory and spoke very little English. But they understood the importance of education, and helped my mother gain acceptance to a prestigious magnet school. That began a trajectory which led to college, then business school, and ultimately a job as a senior executive at a major Manhattan bank. To me, this rapid ascent within one generation embodies the American Dream - and education is largely to thank.
Community college would ensure that opportunities for success, which often begin with higher education, are accessible to all.
It would lift up the poorest members of society, even before they reach college age. For students in school districts where dropping out is as common as graduating, the promise of debt-free higher education might be an inspiration and impetus to stay in school. Free community college also would likely reduce racial disparities in higher academic success.
Helping the poor via access to education doesn't sound too controversial, but the issue of free community college gets stickier when we talk about those in higher income brackets taking advantage of it. But the numbers add up.
Right now, a mere 13% of community college students graduate within two years. (The rate jumps to a still dismal 28% for graduating within four years). Much of this attrition relates to the pressure to work and support families, which often outweighs the time and money it takes to get a degree. Eighty percent of community college students also have jobs, but only 2% of those have Federal Work Study assistance. Providing free community college could alleviate some of the financial burden students face and improve graduation rates.
Meanwhile, community college enrollment dropped considerably during the pandemic. And when enrollment declines, so does the quality of the institution, due to losses in tuition revenue and less government funding, which is doled out based on the number of students. Free community college would directly increase the number of students enrolled, particularly if it's widely available (e.g. not only within certain tax brackets). The original plan also required state funding. Higher enrollment plus state funding would provide an influx of cash to revitalize these schools. The greater the number of new students, the greater the impact would be on the quality of the school and graduation rates, and ultimately, on the overall economic impact.
It's also worth mentioning that taxpayers already foot the bill for those same higher-tax-bracket kids to attend public K-12 schools; this would merely be an extension of that.
Even if community college students don’t transfer their credits to a four-year college, an Associate’s Degree can open doors to a number of well-paying, meaningful and sustainable careers, some of which even offer six-figure salaries. Some examples include becoming an air traffic controller, a preschool teacher, paralegal, vet tech, web developer, and medical technician.
Why wouldn’t we want more Americans to have these jobs?
I don’t have to state the clear benefits for an individual who achieves a higher education degree (but I will), from having a more stable family life, being less likely to commit a crime, having better physical and mental health as well as more disposable income to support our economy. And perhaps most importantly, these educated Americans can pass down the work ethic, values and passion for education to the next generation, ensuring that the cycle continues.
Another benefit? We’re living through a technological revolution and the types of jobs available are changing every day. We need to provide the vocational training for these new careers to improve the disconnect between people looking for jobs - just not the jobs that are available. Chief Listening Officer, Budtender, TikTok Marketer, and Contact Tracer are just a few examples of jobs that didn't exist ten years ago - and of course there are plenty of jobs that no longer exist, as well.
Even if free community college sounds great, how would we pay for it?
The original community college proposal in Biden’s bill had required states to eventually cover 20% of the cost.
Beyond that, I’m not a fan of expanding federal government reach or raising taxes. Neither is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who became a controversial roadblock, preventing any and all tax rate hikes in the megabill. But there are other ways to pay for programs like this; the Washington Post outlines the different ways Democrats plan to fund the $1.75 trillion - without raising our taxes. Or maybe the federal government can reallocate some of the tax dollars we're already paying!
Some final musings...
We all have different sets of beliefs – and even if many of them conveniently fit into one political ideology, most often not all of them do, which is ultimately what makes each of us unique. So instead of ignoring or minimizing our beliefs that don’t fit the mold, let’s celebrate these differences, and the opportunity they afford to reach across the aisle and forge new common ground.