SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Jill Biden was on the road yesterday. She was in Michigan, several states away from Washington, D.C. But, of course, in another sense, she was on familiar ground visiting Oakland Community College. Mrs. Biden is herself a community college professor, and she was there to talk about her husband's plan to make community college free.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JILL BIDEN: You've seen it right here in Michigan. A K-12 education is simply not enough to compete in a 21st-century economy.
SIMON: NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education. Elissa, thanks so much for being with us.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: You bet.
SIMON: So Dr. Biden was talking about a plan in Congress to make community college tuition free. What does that plan look like?
NADWORNY: So the plan from House Democrats is that the federal government would give billions of dollars to states each year in exchange for states eliminating tuition and fees at their community colleges. It's a five-year plan. It would cost about $45.5 billion, which is less than half of what President Biden had initially planned. He wanted 10 years for this program, but it's still big. Here's Wil Del Pilar, a higher ed expert with The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
WIL DEL PILAR: This would be one of the largest investments we've seen in higher ed in generations, and I think it could change the landscape of higher education nationally and extend what would consider free education in this country beyond just high school.
SIMON: Will states have to put up money for this?
NADWORNY: So in the first year, the federal government is going to foot the entire bill. But then each year after, states would have to kick in an additional 5%, ultimately leaving it at a 20-80 split. So one big question is, even if this bill ends up passing, will states opt in? Is there enough money on offer for states to say, yeah, I'll do it? Since the Great Recession, states have cut funding for higher ed, so it might be a struggle for them to pay. Politics is also going to be, you know, in question here, even though at the state and local level, actually tuition-free college is a bipartisan issue, and it's quite popular among voters.
SIMON: One argument, Elissa, as I don't have to tell you, against national - a federal national free college program is that there's already a mix of state and local programs that can make college free or very close to being free, right?
NADWORNY: That's right, yeah. There's a patchwork across the country. Tennessee Promise is a popular program that's statewide in Tennessee. There's also a free college program in Dallas and Kalamazoo, Mich. And while existing financial aid and scholarships can end up covering tuition at community college, which is often pretty affordable, it's confusing for students and families. I talked with Michelle Miller-Adams - she's a professor who studies free college programs - about why a national policy like this is so different from what we have in place.
MICHELLE MILLER-ADAMS: The problem with the system we have now is that whether you have a tuition-free path to college or not just depends on the accident of geography, like where you live. Do you happen to be in a state or a community that has this?
NADWORNY: By making it a national universal benefit, free of income limits and applications, Miller-Adams says it's going to make it more clear.
MILLER-ADAMS: One of the most dramatic findings of 15 years of research is that simplicity is your ally. If you can make that promise that says you can go to college without paying tuition, you get a lot of leverage out of that message.
NADWORNY: So, in other words, students who might not consider college, they're the first in their family to go or they don't think they can afford it, they get a super clear message - community college is free. It's affordable.
SIMON: Elissa, is this - is the workforce development issue part of the argument, especially with the pandemic economy we're in now?
NADWORNY: Sure. Yeah. I mean, community colleges, they're the ones that are training people to fill the jobs that need to be filled like nurses, health aides, IT specialists, the jobs that fuel a local economy. And they're also open-access institutions, so these are the colleges that are serving low-income students, underrepresented minority groups, older adults returning to college, student parents. So there's an equity argument here, too.
The other thing is, coming out of the pandemic, we saw college enrollment really fall and community colleges were hit really hard. And so this is an opportunity to maybe bring some of those students back into higher ed and back into better jobs.
SIMON: What happens next?
NADWORNY: So it now goes to the Senate, but this free-college plan is tied to a whole bunch of other stuff that's in the reconciliation bill. So there's a lot of other political battles at play.
SIMON: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thanks so much for being with us.
NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.