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Free community college could save you more than $6,000: Here’s what you need to know right now about Biden’s free college proposals

Biden delivers speech before Congress
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President Joe Biden continues to prioritize student loan forgiveness and cheaper higher education as the cost of college in America continues to rise. In his latest proposal — the American Families Plan — he plans to pave the way for two years of free community college. With the average annual tuition cost of in-state community college hovering around $3,340, this move could potentially save borrowers more than $6,000 in tuition costs.

In addition to the policies outlined in the American Families Plan, the Biden administration has proposed several ways to make a college education more obtainable, even free in specific situations, for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Key takeaways: Biden’s free college proposals

  • Free tuition at public universities or colleges for families with an annual income of less than $125,000.
  • Free tuition for the first two years of community college.
  • Invest in grants to HBCUs, TCUs and under-resourced MSIs.
  • Double the value of Pell Grants.

Biden seeks to institute free community college for two years

The cost of college has tripled in the past 20 years, with an annual growth rate of 6.8 percent. Making college affordable for low- and middle-income families is a large portion of the American Families Plan and a campaign goal for President Biden. The Biden Plan for Education Beyond High School states that “in today’s increasingly globalized and technology-driven economy, 12 years of education is no longer enough for American workers to remain competitive and earn a middle class income.”

In his latest proposal, students who attend a community college would not be responsible for paying tuition for the first two years. According to a recent White House press release, if all states and territories participated, about 5.5 million students would benefit.

While community college does cost less than a standard four-year institution, it’s not affordable for all students. The cost of community college has risen 46 percent in the past 20 years, with the average annual cost in tuition and fees for a full-time, in-district student averaging out to $3,730. Alleviating even some of this price may encourage students to attend college when they once didn’t see it as a possibility.

The notion of free community college isn’t a new idea; there are currently 17 U.S. states that offer free community college programs for students who meet the state-specific eligibility requirements.

Tuition-free public college is also a possibility

Tuition-free public college for eligible students was included in the Biden Plan for Education Beyond High School but was not mentioned in the more recent American Families Plan. If this does become legislation, families that have an annual income under $125,000 will have access to a free education at a public college or university.

This was a foundational higher education proposal in his presidential campaign, but Biden has since turned his focus to granting free community college for all students, rather than free public college for those who qualify. That said, future legislation addressing four-year colleges isn’t off the table.

How likely is free college?

In order for any legislation to pass, one of two things must happen: Either President Biden must enact an executive order or the bill must go through Congress. Biden has expressed that he is more likely to go through Congress, since he has limited power on his own when it comes to lowering the cost of college.

“Executive orders can be used to tweak the execution of existing federal programs, but a free college program would require an act of Congress,” says Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach. “With Democratic control of both the House and Senate, the prospect of some sort of free college program is likelier now than it has been in recent memory.”

However, it will still be a challenge to pass this into law, as both parties are currently divided on the matter. “As long as the filibuster remains in place, a free college proposal would likely require unanimity among Democrats and at least some Republican support, and that may be a challenge to ascertain,” she says.

Students should still prepare for tuition costs

When it comes to free or reduced college proposals, keep in mind that even if they do become a reality, the benefits likely will not apply to every family. Therefore, it is imperative that families not rely on potential legislation, says Joe DePaulo, CEO and co-founder of College Ave Student Loans. “In order to not be ‘caught out in the rain’ with four years (or more) of college expenses, the best bet is for families to continue to save and make a solid plan on how to cover the cost of a college degree.”

This is particularly true while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. A recent College Ave Student Loans survey found that of those planning to help their child pay for college, 52 percent said that the pandemic will make it more difficult to pay for college this fall.

When it comes to making college more affordable, you have options. Apply for what you can in federal aid and be on the lookout for grants and scholarships offered by your school. If you’re applying for private student loans, shop around to make sure that you’re receiving a competitive rate.

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor