Blog Post | June 23, 2021

What to Know About the Latest Free College Bills

Author: Michele Streeter & Qyana M. Stewart

This spring, lawmakers introduced three major legislative proposals to improve college affordability. These bills — the America’s College Promise Act, the Debt-Free College Act, and the College for All Act — differ in scope and design but would all create a new partnership between the federal government and states to better fund public higher education and waive some portion of college costs for millions of students.

There is significant overlap across the three proposals, with a collective focus on:

  • Covering some portion of college costs for a large share of students and reducing student debt;
  • Addressing state disinvestment in higher education;
  • Explicitly working to close persistent racial and economic gaps in college attainment;
  • Investing in historically underfunded institutions; and
  • Providing dedicated funding to states and institutions to improve student retention and degree completion.

At the heart of these plans is the recognition that without new federal investments and powerful incentives, states will continue to face competing funding pressures and, during economic downturns, will balance their budgets by cutting funding for higher education — leaving families to shoulder ever more of the cost.

In the wake of these bill introductions, President Biden outlined his plan for college affordability, which also includes a federal-state partnership. The $1.8 trillion American Families Plan (AFP), the third in a series of relief and recovery packages proposed by the White House, includes $311 billion for higher education.

While the Administration has yet to endorse legislative text or granular design details, it aligns closely with the America’s College Promise Act in providing tuition-free community college for all students and subsidizing two years of tuition for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs). The package includes $62 billion over ten years to provide grants to under-resourced institutions to better support their students (evidence-based comprehensive student success programs have doubled graduation rates among first-generation students, low-income students, and BIPOC students). As part of the AFP, the White House also proposed an $1,875 boost to the maximum Pell Grant, which it calls a down-payment toward doubling the maximum award over the course of his first term.

As the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, this flurry of activity signals growing policymaker consensus around the need to make big, long-overdue investments in higher education. While the America’s College Promise Act, the Debt-Free College Act, and the College for All Act share an overarching policy goal — to make college more affordable — each bill takes a different approach and includes different requirements for states to meet in exchange for federal funding. Below, we outline and compare the details of the three proposals. (We will provide additional analysis of the President’s American Families Plan as more details become available.)