America’s College Promise Act: New Legislation supporting our Nation’s students, workforce, and economy

By Katherine Saunders

On July 8, 2015, Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), along with House Education and Workforce Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA), introduced the America’s College Promise Act of 2015 to make higher education more accessible and affordable for students.

These companion bills, which follow President Obama’s proposal earlier this year, would make two years of community college free to all eligible students and creates  affordable pathways to four-year college degrees for low-income students. With postsecondary credentials increasingly necessary to secure good jobs and advance economically, this legislation would help all individuals obtain the higher education and skills they need to enter and advance through the workforce, without the financial burden of student debt.

The America’s College Promise Act would provide eligible students with two free years of community college through new federal and state partnerships. Additionally, it creates partnerships with minority serving institutions to help low-income students enroll in and complete a bachelor’s degree. If all 50 states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit.

Under this legislation:

  • New partnerships are created between the federal government and the States to waive two years of community college resident tuition and fees for all eligible students. An eligible student is defined as a first time or returning student who is enrolled at least half-time and maintains satisfactory academic progress. 
  • The federal government provides $3 for every $1 invested by the state to waive community college tuition and fees for eligible students. This occurs before other financial aid is applied.
  • States must ensure that academic programs offer credits that are fully transferable to four-year institutions in their state, or the occupational training leads to credentials in an in-demand industry.
  • States must maintain or increase their investments in higher education.
  • A new grant program is established to provide affordable pathways to success at eligible Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as Minority Serving Institutions, by covering a significant portion of low income students’ tuition and fees for the first two years of attendance.

Forty percent of college students are enrolled at community, technical, or tribal colleges, which often provide more flexibility for the growing nontraditional and low-income student populations. However, while community colleges are more affordable than four-year institutions, many students still face significant unmet financial need, particularly students of color, who are disproportionately affected. For instance, while the average unmet need for an independent community college student is more than $7,000, a full-time community college student would save an average of $3,800 a year under the America’s College Promise Act. If enacted, the America’s College Promise Act would provide first-dollar scholarships—enabling these students to use their Pell Grants for living expenses instead of tuition and fees. CLASP strongly supports this approach, which would significantly reduce unmet need.

CLASP supports the initiatives in this bill, and commends Senators Baldwin and Booker and Representative Scott for advancing the agenda on college access and completion. The America’s College Promise Act would restructure the community college experience to accommodate changing demographics and address students’ financial needs. With an estimated 65 percent of jobs requiring some form of postsecondary education or training by 2020, this legislation would be a bold investment and critical step toward making higher education more accessible and affordable for all students.