Free college for all? U.S. House members advance sweeping effort to lower higher ed costs

Capitol
U.S. Capitol. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON — A U.S. House committee passed legislation Thursday that supporters hailed as a “down payment” on a long-sought liberal goal: free college education for all.

The sweeping measure from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, aims to help more Americans of all backgrounds obtain high-quality college degrees by increasing affordability, accountability and accessibility in higher education.

With a price tag in the billions, the legislation would fund states that waive tuition at community colleges and invest in their public colleges and universities, which proponents say would lower costs for students and families.

It would also increase federal education grants, crack down on “predatory” for-profit colleges and strengthen supports for low-income students and students of color, among other measures.

The bill — an update of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which hasn’t been reauthorized in more than a decade — cleared the House Education and Labor Committee on party lines Thursday morning. The committee’s 28 Democrats voted in favor and the committee’s 22 Republicans voted in opposition.

Democratic Florida Reps. Frederica Wilson and Donna Shalala voted for the bill, with Wilson saying, it will “make a strong statement that everyone deserves access to a quality post-secondary education.”

Proponents called the legislation an important step toward universal access to an affordable college education, a goal articulated more than a half century ago when President Lyndon Johnson first signed the HEA into law in 1965.

At the time, Johnson said the law meant that “a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.”

But that promise remains out of reach for many Americans, said Scott. “We must fulfill the promise of making higher education affordable for all students,” he said at the opening of a committee markup of the bill on Tuesday.

Committee Democrats agreed, voicing strong support over three days this week, with debate over dozens of amendments on issues ranging from campus child care to student health care to equity in higher education.

The bill will “bring us closer to the vision of a higher education system that provides a ticket to America’s middle and upper class,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.).

Republicans, meanwhile, strongly objected to the measure, which carries an estimated price tag of $400 billion over 10 years.

The “partisan” legislation “throws billions and billions of dollars at a failing system,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican.

Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg, meanwhile, accused Democrats of trying to “dictate every choice a student can make along the path of their post-secondary education.”

The value of a bachelor’s degree is coming under heightened scrutiny, but experts say it is still a good investment for most people, with a high average rate of return. Scott made that point in discussions, calling a high-quality college degree “the surest path to financial security and a rewarding career.”

Yet the cost of the path to a college diploma is climbing, leaving millions of Americans in debt.

Over the last decade, the average annual cost of tuition and fees rose by $930 (in 2018 dollars) at public two-year colleges, $2,670 at public four-year institutions and $7,390 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, according to a 2018 College Board report.

Higher sticker prices are due in part to state funding cuts to higher education over the last decade, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Despite higher tuition costs, participation in the nation’s higher education system is on the rise. Over the last two decades, the percent of U.S. adults with an associate’s degree or higher has risen from 31 percent to 45 percent, according to the American Council on Education.

Scott’s bill — the College Affordability Act — now awaits action by the full House chamber. It also faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate, where lawmakers are working on higher education bills of their own.