Free Pre-K and Community College Included in Budget Blueprint

For at least a decade, many experts and advocates have called for expanding the public education system to level the playing field for students from “cradle to career.”

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Plans for free pre-K and community college could provide a ‘ladder into the middle class.’

A graduation ceremony in 2017 at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tenn. The Biden administration looked to the state, which was one of the first to offer free community college, for guidance on its proposal.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

July 16, 2021, 10:30 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — What was once considered a progressive dream for the nation’s education system could be headed toward reality as Democrats push forward to broker a deal on a new spending plan containing President Biden’s most ambitious domestic policy goals.

Included in the list of programs Democrats agreed this week to include in their $3.5 trillion budget blueprint are Mr. Biden’s campaign proposals to offer prekindergarten enrollment for every 3- and 4-year-old in the country, and tuition-free community college to every young adult. So far, both proposals are drawing widespread support from the Democratic coalition and are expected to remain priorities as the party’s top leaders seek to deliver on bedrocks of Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic plan.

“Infrastructure’s about roads and bridges, but it’s about the other things we need to have a fully engaged and active work force,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusets. “That means child care for parents. It means early childhood education, giving our kids the right start. And that means post-high school education or training. That’s what it’s going to take in the 21st century.”

The deal reflects a watershed moment in a movement that for at least a decade has called for expanding the public education system to level the playing field for students from “cradle to career.”

“This is changing how we think about our expectations for public education for our society,” said John B. King Jr., a former education secretary under President Barack Obama who is now the president of the Education Trust, an equity-focused think tank. He added, “Making a universal commitment to 17 years, rather than 13 years, of schooling is a ‘New Deal’ style vision for what a healthy and thriving society looks like in the 21st century.”

Mr. King, who is a Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, said that Mr. Biden was poised to achieve what Mr. Obama’s administration could not. The plans for universal prekindergarten and free community college mirror proposals made then that could not even get a hearing in Congress.

“This shows elections have consequences,” he said, “and reflects an amazing transformation of our politics over a short period of time.”

There are no details yet of what the mammoth deal will contain, and the overall spending figure could shrink. But plans for universal pre-K and community college outlined in Mr. Biden’s $1.8 trillion package of economic proposals, known as the American Families Plan, called for $109 billion to fund two years of tuition-free community college for all. The administration estimated that would benefit millions of students, particularly minority and low-income students, who face economic barriers to obtaining a degree.

It also proposed $200 billion to pay for free pre-K programs, after evidence has grown for decades that unequal access creates achievement gaps among children before they reach kindergarten.

The package comes at a pivotal time, with both the higher education and K-12 sectors reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

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President Biden speaking about his economic proposals at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland in May.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Community college enrollment fell by about 10 percent from 2019 to 2020, with the steepest declines occurring among Black and Latino students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Preschool enrollment declined by nearly 25 percent over the past year. As of December, about half of 4-year-olds and 40 percent of 3-year-olds were attending pre-K, including virtually.

Only 13 percent of children living in low-income households were receiving an in-person preschool education in December, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“Both of these are huge investments and recalibrations,” said Lanae Erickson, the senior vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, a center-left policy think tank based in Washington. “It’s an acknowledgment that we end up sending our kids most in need to the most under-resourced institutions, and this fundamentally recognizes that’s not fair or good policy.”

Expanding free early childhood education could lead to greater earnings, higher levels of education and lower levels of participation in crime, according to research from James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago.

“You’re creating a ladder into the middle class,” Mr. Heckman said.

Mr. Heckman’s research on the Perry Preschool Project, which gave two years of high-quality education to disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds in Ypsilanti, Mich., found a return on investment of 7 to 10 percent per year based on increased school and career achievement. More recently, Mr. Heckman and his colleagues found that compared with children of a control group, children of the original participants benefited from their parents’ higher average earnings and were more likely to grow up in stable two-parent households.

Mr. Heckman said, however, that free pre-K would be a “waste of funds” if it was also offered to affluent families. It would make more sense for the federal government to provide the benefit to the most disadvantaged children, such as those in single-parent households, he said.

Still, Mr. Heckman said that any expansion of access to early childhood education would help.

“Even if they waste it with universality, it’s better to take it as a package than throw it out the window,” he said.

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Mr. Biden campaigned to offer prekindergarten enrollment for every 3- and 4-year-old in the United States.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Celeste K. Carruthers, an associate professor of economics at the University of Tennessee, said that eliminating tuition should increase enrollment at community colleges and overall wages for people who completed their degrees.

Ms. Carruthers and her colleagues tracked the performances of students who were eligible for Knox Achieves, a program that provided free community college to any high school graduate in Knox County, Tenn. The researchers found that eligibility for the program led to higher rates of completion at two-year community colleges and significantly higher earnings as long as seven years after high school.

“Offering free community college simplifies the college enrollment decision,” Ms. Carruthers said. “That should result in more students going to college.”

More than 15 states already offer some form of free community college, generally targeted to low-income students. Some Republican lawmakers from states where such programs have taken root have argued that a federal program is not necessary. Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, which offers college tuition scholarships to low-income high schoolers, said that aside from the sheer cost of the proposed plan, his primary objection was that the federal government should not be requiring states to provide subsidized college over other programs.

“Ultimately, that is a state responsibility,” Mr. Lankford said.

House Republicans, who denounced Mr. Biden’s plan when he proposed it, argued in a statement that “eliminating tuition and fees at the nation’s cheapest colleges does not solve the college affordability crisis.”

But Walter G. Bumphus, the president and chief executive of the American Association of Community Colleges, said Mr. Biden’s plan demonstrated his deep knowledge of the barriers facing the 12 million students the nation’s community colleges serve annually. The first lady, Jill Biden, is a longtime community college professor.

“Eliminating tuition, increasing support for workforce education and providing needed resources to increase student success and completion take direct aim at those barriers,” Mr. Bumphus said in a statement, “and will help us to eradicate them and clear the pathway to a better future for students, for communities and for the nation.”

The Biden administration looked to Tennessee, one of the first states to offer free community college program, for guidance on its proposal. Its program, called Tennessee Promise, provides “last-dollar” scholarships for students to attend two-year community colleges and other programs, basically covering whatever cost remains after they have exhausted their financial aid.

Shanna L. Jackson, the president of Nashville State Community College, told reporters this year that among the biggest lessons from the Tennessee program was that “free college is not free,” and students are often burdened by other costs like transportation, textbooks and child care.

“There’s a very real cost for students in urban and rural areas who have to cut back on hours of work to be successful,” Ms. Jackson said, adding that the burden disproportionately fell on low-income and minority students.

She added that there was also a “significant equity gap between Black and white students” who enrolled through the state program. For example, among the Promise program’s 2017 cohort, 26 percent of white beneficiaries completed their degrees in five semesters, while only 9 percent of Black students did.

Policy experts have warned that universal tuition-free college can be regressive and even exacerbate inequality by steering low-income students to lower-performing schools. And studies of existing programs have shown that they have done little to close the affordability gap for many students because of all the other costs associated with attending college.

Mr. Biden’s tuition-free proposal is already drawing from lessons learned. It’s a “first-dollar” program, paying tuition upfront and freeing up students’ financial aid to cover additional costs, like living expenses. Experts and advocates said it would be crucial for the Biden administration to see through other parts of its higher education plan, like increasing the number of federal Pell grants awarded to low-income students and preserving the more than $60 billion that the administration wants to commit to programs that help students finish college.

Douglas N. Harris, a professor and chair of the economics department at Tulane University, who helped the Biden campaign research free-college programs across the country, said that free college should not be seen as a silver bullet.

Mr. Harris, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said his own analysis of even the most inspiring programs led to a sobering conclusion: “It’s really hard to change students’ trajectories.”

“Free college may be a catalyst for change,” he said. “This kind of a program is beneficial, but it’s not going to by itself change the inequities that we see.”

Emily Cochrane, Jonathan Weisman and Dana Goldstein contributed reporting.

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