But Biden grew serious as he praised the college leaders before him for inspiring students, particularly those from other countries, and for giving a renewed sense of hope to people who were hurt by the economic downturn and who might not have otherwise had a chance to attend college. He recalled a visit to a community college in Detroit, which recently made community college free for local high-school graduates, that had reached out to people in their 20s through 50s about learning to code to fill IT jobs in the area. Now, he said, they earn a good living. “I’m telling you, it’s going to happen,” he said, of nationwide free community college, “particularly if my team wins this race.”
While most students still have to pay to attend a community college, the idea of free community college is gathering traction nationwide, said Emily Parker, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States during an interview at the reception. A report released this week showed that there are some 150 programs across 37 states offering free two-year degrees.
“I think we’re creating a national experiment,” Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education at the U.S. Education Department and the person in charge of postsecondary issues, said in response to a reporter’s question about whether the variety of programs allowed by the bottom-up approach was a concern. “Most good solutions are not either or,” he added, when asked whether the fact that a number of states have moved forward with their own initiatives meant Congress did not need to act at the national level.
But Parker and her colleague, Sarah Pingel, also a policy analyst, said some states are ignoring older students who could benefit from free community college—people, for instance, who are forced to switch careers as their local economies shift. Some states have a “myopic way” of approaching the issue, Pingel said. Some explicitly restrict programs to recent high-school graduates, Parker added, while others impose implicit restrictions by asking for certain test scores that adults may not have, or requiring students to have graduated from local high schools. A national program might alleviate some of those burdens.
Yet Mitchell said he is encouraged by the “real shift of focus” to the idea of making more than just the current 13 years of public education free and accessible, and by the way local school districts are working with businesses and colleges in places like Long Beach, California, and Knoxville, Tennessee, to make the transition from school to the workforce as seamless as possible for students.
Martha Kanter—who served as under secretary before Mitchell, at one point worked as the chancellor of a large community-college district in California, and currently heads up the administration’s national initiative to make community college free—agreed. Momentum has been building for years, she said, particularly as the cost of attending college has risen, and she’s confident it will continue.