Manchin worries free education will turn Americans into moochers. Students are left in the dust
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on CNN (screengrab)

With barely a whimper, free community college for all Americans bit the dust, at least for now.

Already stripped from the pared-down Build Back Better bill proposed by the Biden administration in October, free community college will not re-emerge as a free-standing bill in 2022.

An initiative that has been implemented successfully in 19 states as different as Arkansas and California, you might think that two years of free college might have been a model for elevating successful local initiatives as federal policy.

But apparently it was one thing for states to shoulder the burden of creating an educated workforce and another for the Biden administration to make that investment.

First Lady and community college professor Dr. Jill Biden was tasked with presenting the disappointing news to the 2022 Community College National Legislative Summit last week. She spoke of the human cost of this failure.

"These aren't just bills or budgets to me, to you, right?” Biden told colleagues who had hoped for a $45.5 billion infusion of federal money. “And it was a real lesson in human nature that some people just don't get that."

It’s no surprise that Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and their Republican allies don’t “get that.”

They believe that a $45.5 billion investment in technicians, health care workers and other skilled laborers we desperately need is an unaffordable “handout” that weakens Americans’ moral fiber.

New Hampshire’s Republican Governor Chris Sununu also rejected the plan. Students who didn’t pay, he argued, would not commit seriously to education.

The bill had other enemies. One was inside the house all along.

Private colleges and universities, and at least one major, public four-year institution, saw the plan as a direct threat to their bottom lines.

As early as last October, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities withheld its support because the idea was “untested” and government could better help students by increasing Pell Grants.

But federally funded free community college is neither new nor untested: many were free for almost a century.

Part of an education reform plan, two-year colleges would, University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper argued in the 1890s, make Morrill Act public education funds available to more Americans.

These “junior colleges” would be situated in public high schools and would relieve four-year colleges and universities from teaching basic college-level skills and general education courses.

As an example of what this could look like, Harper divided his own tuition-driven university into a “junior college” and a “senior college” in 1892. But it was a high school principal, in Joliet, Illinois, who, in 1901, took up Harper’s challenge to first offer college-level courses for free and then establish an independent, public junior college.

The junior college movement expanded heterogeneously before World War II. Some, as in California, were public and free, and usually an extension of high school. Others, like the private, tuition-driven Harcum Junior College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, established in 1915 to educate middle-class women, were intended as a launching pad for a university education.

But by the mid-century 20th century, that status of community colleges declined in many states. As college enrollment expanded dramatically under the 1944 GI Bill, Harvard president James Bryant Conant argued that junior colleges — now known as “community colleges” because of their democratic to local education — were primarily for students with modest, vocational goals.

Similarly, all community colleges were never free, but they were free in places where the desire for economic growth and democratic social mobility merged.

Native Floridians paid no tuition until 1969. Similarly, post-secondary schools in California, the largest educational system in the country, offered post-secondary education to in-state students for free until 1978.

Its 73 community colleges also served as feeder schools to four-year institutions. By providing skilled labor, free community and four-year colleges fueled both states’ growth as national hubs for the aerospace and military industries.

Although the United States is currently faced with worker shortages across its skilled labor force, there is hard evidence that reviving tuition-free community college could be the remedy.

In 2008, Knoxville, Tennessee, made this move, a program that became statewide in 2014, funded by a combination of taxpayer dollars and private donations. Mentorship and apprenticeship programs that complement course work have boosted poor students into well-paying jobs.

So, what are the barriers to supporting two-year schools?

First, as their opposition to the Biden plan reveals, public and private four-year colleges and universities remain fatally dependent on tuition dollars that would be diminished if students who wanted a four-year degree could complete two of them for free.

Despite the economic vulnerability that became evident during the first months of the covid crisis, these institutions and the politicians that support them have no immediate plan to replace tuition with more sustainable income streams, like taxes.

As importantly, Joe Manchin’s anxiety that Americans will become moochers, and Chris Sununu’s belief that students will only be disciplined learners if they have skin in the game, reflect a national divide on whether public goods should be shared or earned, and whether the nation benefits from educated workers.

But voters, not surprisingly, break along ideological, class, age and racial lines.

A recent Pew study reveals that 85 percent of Democrats, and only 36 percent of Republicans, believe public colleges should be tuition-free.

But over half of non-college educated Republicans under 50 do support taxpayer-funded community colleges. So do Americans under 30 by an overwhelming 73 percent.

And while only 51 percent of white Americans are in favor of canceling tuition, Black (86 percent), Hispanic (82 percent) and Asian American (69 percent) citizens support democratic access to post-secondary education.

And best of all, tuition-free community college does have a track record. It creates satisfying and sustainable lives for American families, and a robust economy that can respond to the needs of tomorrow.