The American Families Act Can Transform Community College, but it Doesn’t Go Far Enough

By Tatiana Melguizo
Professor of Education

May 25, 2021

Community college-age students sit in a classroom, listening a lecture. The American Families Plan aims to make community college free

As part of the American Families Act, the Biden administration wants to shake up higher education by providing billions of dollars of funding to community colleges over the next decade.

This is key as community colleges have been historically critically underfunded while serving about five million students nationwide, many of whom are either historically marginalized, low-income and/or the first in their families to attend college.

Providing adequate and equitable funding could finally enable these institutions to engage in the kind of system re-design necessary for low-income students to fulfill their educational dream and attain gainful employment.

The Biden administration’s proposal earmarks $300 billion for community colleges over the next decade. Here’s how the funds will be allocated under current terms:

  • 50% will be used to make community college tuition-free
  • About 28% will be allocated directly to students through a raise to the Pell Grant, which they can use to cover living expenses
  • 22% will fund retention programs such as emergency grants, daycare for children of college students, and mental health services

What does this free community college plan mean for a state like California where community college is basically free but students experience the third-highest cost of living in the nation? The devil is in the details.

Community colleges in California charge the lowest tuition nationwide. This is a source of pride for the state. However, it is also important to note that community colleges receive less than half of per full-time equivalent student funding compared to the University of California system.

The American Families Act is proposing to pay for 75% of the national average cost of tuition and require the states to cover the remaining 25%. This means that for each dollar that the state invests in tuition they will receive $3 from the federal government.

The Billion-Dollar Equity Question

While the influx of funds is a welcome investment, one pressing question remains: How is the federal government going to incentivize California to invest the additional state dollars equitably and efficiently?

The good news is that these state funds are required to be spent in the community college sector so they cannot be re-directed to other sectors or re-allocated within higher education.

Additionally, the federal funds will enable community colleges in California to properly implement the California Community College Chancellor’s Office’s Vision for Success. They will finally have the resources to establish successful college transition and support programs, which are critical for students’ academic and psychological well-being, and key to increasing persistence and degree attainment.

However, under the current terms of Biden’s proposal, and without further guidance for the state, these funds still fail to meet the needs of community college students.

The Pandemic’s Toll

Community college students have been hit particularly hard by the global pandemic. As COVID-19 ravaged the state, many students and their families encountered more challenges than their peers at traditional, more selective four-year colleges.

Many of them work in the service industry and lost their jobs as businesses were forced to close. Additionally, community college students often live in multi-generational homes. Quarantining in close quarters with extended family not only increased their exposure to the virus, it disrupted their ability to study, especially for students without access to a laptop or stable internet service.

As a result of twin health and economic crises, enrollment in the California community college system plunged by a staggering 12 percent last year, or over 186,000 students. (The decline mirrors a troubling nationwide trend.)

The Power of the Pell Grant

Because of the immense toll of the pandemic, community college students need much more than free tuition to succeed. The Biden plan proposes to increase the current Pell Grant by 20 percent, which is laudable but totally inadequate in the state of California. On the other hand, the recent plan introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders doubles the Pell Grant, which is what students really need in our state.

As California is also investing millions of dollars to increase access to student housing, the Pell Grant can be used to pay for room and board. Students might still need to use federal loans to cover the full cost of attendance, but the amount of their accumulated debt would substantially decrease.

This gets closer to the ideal of “free” community college.

The American Families Act has the potential to empower community colleges to address systemic inequities and equalize the higher education playing field. If passed (and enhanced with expanded Pell Grant funding), it will finally provide racially minoritized and low-income students the right to thrive.