Fulfilling the Promise: A Postsecondary Education for Low-income Students and Workers

By Rosa M. García

College costs have been on the rise for the past several decades and have far outpaced income gains. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that average inflation-adjusted public college tuition had risen by 281 percent between 1973 and 2015, 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 federal Pell Grant, these disturbing trends have had a profound effect on college access and affordability for low-income students and adult working students, particularly people of color and immigrants. That’s why it’s no surprise that a college degree is out of reach for millions of low-income youth and adults, forcing them to take on student loans, drop out of school, or forgo college altogether.

This week, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) applauds Congressman Andy Levin (D-MI) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) for introducing the America's College Promise Act of 2019. This legislation would eliminate significant financial barriers to a postsecondary education for millions, particularly low-income students who enter college for the first time or students and workers who wish to improve their lives by returning to college to pursue a postsecondary credential.

This legislation fulfills the promise to make college more accessible and affordable and promotes transfer pathways to bachelor's degrees. CLASP is pleased the bill waives the cost of tuition and fees at community colleges, which means that students and workers can use their financial aid for ever-increasing living costs. Key provisions in the bill would:

  • Establish partnerships between the federal government and states and tribes (75/25 percent cost share) to provide tuition-and-fee-free community college to all eligible students;
  • Provide all students—not just first-time, full-time students—with access to tuition-and-fee-free programs at community colleges; this includes recent high school graduates, part-time students, or established workers looking to retrain to be competitive in the marketplace;
  • Ensure that programs’ academic credits are fully transferable to four-year institutions in their state;
  • Maintain and encourage increased state funding for higher education;
  • Establish a new grant program to provide pathways to success at eligible Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs); low-income students may attend two years at a community colleges and two years at eligible four-year HBCUs or MSIs and receive significant tuition and fee grant aid for their entire college career;
  • Allow undocumented immigrant youth to benefit from the program;
  • Provide eligible students and workers with access to the credentials and skills necessary to get ahead in the workplace at an affordable cost; and,
  • Ensure eligible students who wish to pursue a four-year degree will have an easier path to do so, while returning students looking to acquire a postsecondary credential for a new job can do that and increase their prospects in the job market.

Under the proposal, part-time community college students would be able to participate if they maintain satisfactory academic progress, qualify for resident tuition, and are enrolled in an eligible program. The bill also allows undocumented immigrant students who meet certain requirements to have their tuition and fees waived or significantly reduced at community colleges and eligible HBCUs, HSIs, and other MSIs.

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

Provide comprehensive academic and student supports (especially for low-income, first-generation, adult, and other underrepresented students);

  • Promote career pathways;
  • Provide accelerated learning opportunities such as dual or concurrent enrollment approaches;
  • Implement course redesigns of high-enrollment courses to improve student outcomes;
  • Promote transfer pathways to complete a bachelor’s degree;
  • Develop partnerships to advance work-based learning opportunities, as well as foreign-exchange and study-abroad programs; and
  • Facilitate student participation in means-tested federal benefit programs.

In our view, these promising innovations and evidence-based practices can support low-income students in acquiring a college degree and/or recognized postsecondary credentials that help them move 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. This legislation goes a long way to supporting the education of a larger concentration of students of color, immigrant youth, and adults with the greatest financial need by targeting federal investments in community colleges, HBCUs, HSIs, and MSIs that have been historically underfunded and by encouraging states to do their part to increase state funding for higher education.

CLASP is dedicated to advancing federal and state policies that help students and workers with low incomes attain a college degree and increase their economic security and mobility. That's why we are proud to endorse the America's College Promise Act and applaud Congressman Levin and Senator Baldwin for their leadership. This bill helps set the stage for further discussions about the importance of higher education. We look forward to working with Congressman Levin, Senator Baldwin, and other members of Congress on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Click here to learn more about CLASP’s HEA priorities.