On April 28, 2021, the eve of his 100th day in office, President Joe Biden proposed a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that would expand universal prekindergarten access, provide two years of free community college education, and fund programs to train and support teachers (Education Week).
Biden said in his address, “We can’t be so busy competing with each other that we forget the competition is with the rest of the world to win the 21st century. To win that competition for the future, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families – in our children.”
The package comes as the administration makes progress in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening schools. Congress is considering several other costly proposals. We will unpack what the American Families Plan entails and explore potential advantages and disadvantages. Four additional years of education may sound like an obvious way to increase access to critical resources, but education reform in America has always had a turbulent history.
The Plan’s Proposal
The following is a rough breakdown of the American Families Plan. This package is in addition to the $130 billion in COVID-19 relief aid for K-12 schools.
- Provide $200 billion for “universal, high quality” preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds. The proposal relies on state cooperation.
- Provide $109 billion to pay for two years of free community college for all Americans, including undocumented immigrant students. The maximum Pell Grant will be expanded for low-income college students by $1,400.
- Provide $9 billion to “train, equip and diversify American teachers” through expanded federal scholarships for aspiring educators.
- Provide $45 billion to expand nutrition programs, which would allow schools in low-income areas to serve universal free meals.
Many education groups are lauding Biden’s proposal as a necessary step forward in helping students, families, and communities. Although the U.S. led the world in the creation of free public schooling, that progress has slowed down, and Biden’s package could help catch us up (The Washington Post). Early education could boost many young children’s later chances of later graduating from high school and going to college. Universal access to preschool education (pre-K) and expanded access to free college-age education are already the norm in most Western European nations.
Biden’s proposal would cover two years of tuition at community colleges as well as students at higher education institutions that serve minority communities. Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton Community College, views Biden’s proposal as an opportunity to partner with historically Black colleges and universities so transfer students can take advantage of the subsidized tuition. “The combination of free community college, paired with two subsidized years at a minority-serving institution, would be impactful for Latinx students, too, said Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities” (Inside Higher Ed).
Republicans are opposed to additional federal spending, which would lead to increased taxes, and they also take issue with the government meddling further into American lives. Some officials go so far as to call four additional years of school “indoctrination.”
Free college programs may end up creating more inequality, not less (Third Way). Not all institutions will qualify for federal funding. Moreover, the influx of students at community colleges will create a demand for non-tuition expenses such as resources for student success, which institutions may not be able to provide.
According to Inside Higher Ed, “new research from Princeton University and the University of Chicago has shown that diverted students—those who would’ve otherwise enrolled in four-year schools but instead enrolled in two-year schools—end up with worse outcomes, including being 18 percentage points less likely to complete a four-year degree compared to directly enrolling in a four-year school.”
Past Education Reform & the Contemporary Education Dilemma
In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed preschool expansion, but it was a non-starter in Congress. Education plans that require state cooperation are tricky because some state leaders are averse to federal intervention. It is a long shot for Biden’s proposal to get the 60 Senate votes needed to bring the plan to a vote under current rules. Aside from political barriers, there must be a cultural adoption of social programs.
In our competitive job landscape, it is difficult for degree-holding individuals to find permanent work. Leaders across higher education generally think the American Families Plan is a step in the right direction. However, it will be difficult to undo half a century’s worth of disinvestment in the American educational system.
by Elena D.