(The Hill) — First lady Jill Biden confirmed that the administration won’t be able to deliver free community college to Americans, acknowledging that a major provision of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda is off the table.
“Congress hasn’t passed the Build Back Better legislation yet. And free community college is no longer part of that package,” Biden said in remarks at a community college summit on Monday.
“We knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. Joe always said that. Still, like you, I was disappointed because like you, these aren’t just bills or budgets to me, to you, right? We know what they mean for real people, for our students. And it was a real lesson in human nature that some people just don’t get that,” she added.
Two years of free community college to all eligible students was part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and a signature initiative for the first lady, who is a longtime community college professor.
Her announcement on Monday at the 2022 Community College National Legislative Summit delivers a major blow to community colleges, which originally were expected to receive $45.5 billion from Build Back Better to waive two years of tuition for students. That funding was intended to last for five years and then would decrease by 5 percent every year after that.
“We’ve seen how entire towns can be transformed when community colleges and private companies work together to train students for jobs that are desperately needed, with skills like manufacturing or modernizing our electrical grid,” she said.
Tuition-free community college was not included in the Build Back Better framework unveiled in October, which was a pared-down version that later passed the House.
The over $2 trillion House-passed bill was not able to garner support from moderate Democrats, notably Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who tanked the bill in December over inflation and federal debt concerns. Joe Biden has since acknowledged that the House-passed bill will likely have to be broken up to pass the Senate.
The first lady on Monday pointed to provisions still being negotiated in Build Back Better that could help community college students, striking a hopeful tone that some assistance is on the way. She said that high-speed internet, affordable prescription drugs, more Pell Grants, affordable child care and universal preschool are still on the table.
Jill Biden also argued that the administration has made progress for community college students, noting that the American Rescue Plan, the major COVID-19 relief package passed last year, put millions of dollars into community colleges, while the bipartisan infrastructure law also promises to create jobs and skills training.
Jill Biden used a sports analogy throughout her remarks on Monday to show her disappointment about free community college being nixed from the Build Back Better agenda.
“Too often, we treat what happens in our nations’ capital like a sports game too, wondering which team will score the most points with voters. Legislation becomes a football to keep away from the other side and Americans get lost in the playbook,” she said.
“Governing does have one thing in common with sports. When you get knocked down, you get back up. When you lose, you work harder and you come back for more,” she added later. “Joe doesn’t quit, he doesn’t give up. He is keeping his promise to rebuild our middle class and he knows that community colleges do just that.”
Jill Biden has been teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College while serving as first lady.
She said that recently she had to loan a student a book in her classroom because payday hadn’t come, and had another student whose child got COVID-19 so she missed classes and wasn’t able to catch up.
“With work and persistence, we will win the progress that our students deserve,” she said. “We are not giving up.”