Fulfilling the Promise of a Postsecondary Education

By Rosa Garcìa

College costs have been on the rise for the past several decades. And it's only getting worse. In recent years, college costs have outpaced income gains. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that between 1973 and 2015, average inflation-adjusted public college tuition had risen by 281 percent, while median household income had grown by only 13 percent. To make matters worse, the costs of education-related expenses such as housing, textbooks, child care, food, and transportation have also skyrocketed over the past decade. Coupled with state disinvestment in higher education and a decline in the purchasing power of the Pell Grant, these disturbing trends have had a profound effect on college access and affordability for low-income students, particularly students of color. It is no surprise that a college degree is out of reach for millions of low-income youth and adults, forcing them to borrow student loans, drop out of school, or forgo college altogether.

America's College Promise Act, a companion bill to Representative Bobby Scott's (D-VA) H.R. 3709, would address severe financial barriers to getting a college education. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), along with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have reintroduced the America's College Promise Act in the Senate.

This legislation fulfills the promise to make college more accessible and affordable for millions of low-income and non-traditional students and promote transfer pathways to bachelor's degrees. The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) is pleased the bill waives the cost of tuition and fees at community colleges and technical colleges, which means that students can use their financial aid for ever-increasing living costs. Key provisions in bill would:

  • Create a new partnership with the federal government for states and Native nations to help them waive two years of resident tuition in community and technical college programs for eligible students, including part-time students and non-traditional students not enrolling in college for the first time.
  • Provide a federal match of $3 for every $1 invested by the state to waive community college tuition and fees for eligible students before other financial aid is applied.
  • Ensure that program's academic credits are fully transferable to four-year institutions in their state or occupational training that leads to credentials in an in-demand industry.
  • Maintain and encourage increased state funding for higher education.
  • Establish a new grant program to provide pathways to success at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) by covering a significant portion of tuition and fees for low-income students for either the first two years or last two years of college at qualifying HBCUs, HSIs, and other MSIs.
  • Allow for the inclusion of low-income students who may not be otherwise eligible for federal financial aid to participate in a new grant program for HBCUs, HSIs, and other MSIs.

Under the proposal, part-time community college students who maintain satisfactory academic progress, qualify for resident tuition, and are enrolled in an eligible program would be able to participate. Since the bill allows for the participation of students who may not be otherwise eligible for federal aid, undocumented immigrant students who meet certain requirements, including Dreamers, would also be eligible to have their tuition and fees waived or significantly reduced at HBCUs, HSIs, and MSIs.

The bill requires states to incorporate innovative and evidence-based strategies to promote student success. Some of these key strategies include:

  • career pathways
  • dual or concurrent enrollment approaches
  • course redesigns
  • comprehensive academic and student supports (especially for low-income, first-generation, adult, and other underrepresented students)
  • foreign exchange and study abroad
  • work-based learning opportunities
  • pathways to graduate and professional degree programs.

In our view, these promising innovations and evidence-based practices can support low-income students in acquiring a college degree and recognized postsecondary credentials in an in-demand industry sector or occupation that help to move them along pathways out of poverty.

These new partnerships and federal investments will strengthen the capacity of open-access institutions to offer low-income students an affordable, high-quality education. By targeting federal investments in community, technical and tribal colleges, HBCUs, HSIs, and MSIs-institutions that have been historically underfunded in higher education-and encouraging states to do their part to increase state funding for higher education, this legislation goes a long way to support the education of a larger concentration of students of color, immigrant youth, and adults with the greatest financial need.

CLASP is dedicated to advancing federal and state policies that help low-income students attain a college degree and improve their economic security. That's why we are proud to endorse the America's College Promise Act and applaud Senator Baldwin's leadership.