Biden Backs Two Years of “Free” Community College

Joseph Biden, in his first campaign appearance in New Hampshire as a declared 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, says he would make two years of community college free to students.

Joe Biden speaks at a campaign stop in Hampton, N.H.
Joe Biden speaks at a campaign stop in Hampton, N.H.

“Twelve years of education is not enough anymore,” Biden said during a midday event on May 13 in Hampton, N.H. He cited his wife, a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, as saying, “any country that out-educates us will out compete us.”

Biden devoted a significant portion of his 25-minute talk to the education issue.

“Sixty-five out of 100 jobs today require more than a high school degree,” Biden said, lamenting that the cost of college “has become so expensive,” and blaming Republican-dominated state legislatures for contributing to rising costs by, he said, reducing funding for state colleges and universities.

Biden got into the topic in part by talking about things that could be paid for by reversing the tax cuts enacted by President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress.

“Send everybody to a community college for free, cutting in half the cost of their four-year education,” Biden proposed. He said the price tag of the proposal would be $6 billion a year.

Biden also spoke of “investing in early education,” though he didn’t lay out specifics on that front.

Biden said the excellence of American higher education is one reason he is “an optimist” about America. He said the U.S. has “more great research universities…than all the rest of the world combined,” though he did say that academic science and medical researchers working on cancer or Alzheimer’s should do a better job collaborating with each other and sharing data rather than keeping it to themselves.

President Barack Obama backed free community college in 2015, but it was never enacted. That same year, Biden, then vice president, expressed support for “16 years of free public education for all our children.”

By focusing on public, low-cost community colleges, Biden’s higher education proposal is less sweeping than Senator Elizabeth Warren’s, who in addition to proposing eliminating tuition at both four-year and two-year public colleges has put forward a loan forgiveness plan that would wipe out most outstanding student debt at an estimated cost of $955 billion. Another Democratic presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, has focused her education plan on raising teacher salaries in kindergarten through 12th grade, at a cost her campaign says is $315 billion over 10 years. Another candidate for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, has introduced the “College For All Act,” which would spend $47 billion a year in federal tax dollars “to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities.”

Biden signaled that he was prepared to be attacked for his proposal. “There goes that big-spending Democrat Biden,” Biden said, referring to himself in the third-person, and replying, “This isn’t about spending, this is about fair.”

Several states, including Tennessee and Nevada, already provide free community college to in-state residents, so Biden can argue that he’s just expanding nationwide a plan that even some Republican governors have supported.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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