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Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives recently advanced a proposal to make community colleges tuition-free nationwide. This bill would restore free community college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, which had been free for more than 100 years. But unless Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stands up for students, this proposal could be slashed by Republicans and moderate Democrats who are threatening to stop major new investments.
Thanks to leaders like Dr. Jill Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), free community college has become a mainstream and very popular idea. The vast majority of Democrats in Congress support it, but our local elected officials in New York have been hostile: Both former governor Andrew Cuomo and current mayor Bill de Blasio sought funding cuts for the City University of New York, where Juvanie serves as a trustee and chair of the Student Senate.
What makes those attacks on CUNY especially disappointing is that our colleges consistently rank in the top 10 schools that help students from low-income backgrounds rise into the middle class. Politicians that claim to be champions of working people have long threatened our city institutions that help us most.
The history of free tuition at CUNY dates back to the schools’ founding in 1847. It lasted until 1976, when a fiscal crisis, combined with racist blowback against college integration efforts, paved the way for our modern tuition system. Black and brown students at CUNY fought for open admissions, but were overpowered by the systemic racism that spun out of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan's conservative revolution. As governor of California, Reagan vilified the UC system and slashed state funding for higher education. Speaking of free tuition and open enrollment policies, one of Nixon's education advisors cautioned, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat!” This was the beginning of the end of free tuition systems in California and New York, and led to tuition spiraling out of control, even as CUNY students have struggled with food insecurity and homelessness.
These problems exist nationwide. According to research conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, nearly three in five students experienced basic needs insecurity during the fall of 2020, with especially high rates at community colleges.
The current proposal in Congress would go a long way toward making sure students do not have to choose between their next meal and saving for tuition because it is a “first dollar” program. That means the federal government would subsidize a student's tuition and allow them to keep their Pell grant, which can be used to offset additional costs like books, housing, and transportation that are often more expensive than tuition itself.
During the past year, Schumer has led calls for Biden to keep his promises by canceling student loan debt. Debt cancellation would be a huge step forward, but without enacting a college affordability agenda, future students and borrowers will just continue to accumulate more and more student loan debt.
The main skeptics of free community college in the Senate are Republicans, who are stonewalling Biden’s agenda, and a handful of Democrats. With razor-thin margins to pass a free community college bill, Senator Schumer will have to address their concerns and hold his caucus together.
What policies are they worried about? Senator Joe Manchin (R-WVA) voiced concerns that the House proposal does not have sufficient restrictions on students' income and overall spending. But the power of free community college programs is that they signal to students, often from low-income backgrounds, that there is a path for them to earn a degree. When programs add income caps, they muddle the message, and programs often go woefully underused. Even WV Invests, the free community college tuition program in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, does not have income caps for participating students.
It is also important to look at the insinuation that rich people would take advantage of these programs. The majority of community college students are working part- or full-time, students of color, and receiving financial aid. The median income for full-time employees with an associate’s degree is a little over $46,000 — these aren’t exactly colleges for the 1%.
The second concern, about spending, ignores that community colleges are a worthwhile investment that, in the long run, will grow our economy and funnel money back to the federal government. Otherwise, the economic and racial inequities in higher education prevent students from earning degrees that ultimately promote our nation’s economic growth.
Given the naysayers' frail logic, it seems likely that the decision on whether or not to make community colleges free will come down to politics over policy. Either way, we need Schumer to stand strong and keep the proposal for free community college intact and free from cuts. Through his position, the Senate majority leader can facilitate transformative change for students here in New York and nationwide. But if he caves to political pressure, he will be just another politician who made big promises to CUNY students that he could not deliver.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue