We Can’t Build Back Better Without Restoring the Promise of Higher Education

By: Jessica Thompson

Colleges and universities are some of America’s most important institutions for equalizing opportunity and promoting upward mobility. However, public colleges, which enroll more than three-quarters of undergraduate students, including 81 percent of BIPOC students, suffer from a long-term decline in state funding. Over time, this has made it both more expensive for students to attend public colleges and harder for them to complete a degree. These challenges mean that our higher education system can reinforce, rather than combat, systemic inequities. But Congress has a chance to address these fundamental issues: passing the Build Back Better Act.

The time is now to disrupt this trend by fundamentally changing how we fund higher education. Surveys show that Americans’ long-time, strong commitment to the transformative power of higher education has been steadily eroded in the face of rising college costs and student debt, as well as persistent racial and economic inequities in college completion rates. In 2012, 94 percent of parents wanted their children to go to college. Today, about half of parents express a desire for different post-high school options for their children. Even among parents who themselves have earned a bachelor’s degree, one-third did not want their children to do the same.

The Build Back Better Act includes three core higher education reforms: a new federal-state partnership to fund tuition-free community college; a boost to the maximum Pell Grant; and a landmark fund to support evidence-based student success initiatives. Together, these will go a long way toward restoring the promise of higher education and addressing the root causes of rising costs and spiking student debt. However, current political debates about how to pare back these historic investments threaten to undermine the bill’s key promise to help more students afford college and complete a degree.

Critically, the free community college portion of the bill offers up a new vision for how the federal government and states can jointly commit to lowering college costs and ensuring adequate, stable funding for public colleges. During recessions, higher education has long served as a balance wheel for state budgets, as states facing tough budget decisions can cut funding and pass the costs on to students and families. This cycle — driven largely by state balanced-budget requirements — will continue indefinitely in the absence of new federal investments that help states to maintain funding even during budget crunches. The America’s College Promise program would not only provide free community college: it would enable states and the federal government to work together — for the first time — to restore state funding and protect colleges and students from the now-predictable effects of recessions.

In tandem with this historic new federal-state partnership, the Build Back Better Act increases the maximum Pell Grant by $500 to provide much-needed additional grant aid to students attending all types of colleges. It also creates a first-of-its-kind Retention and Completion Fund to invest in both proven models and innovative practices to help more students graduate.

Taken together, these investments — along with new, long overdue funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority-Serving Institutions — will fundamentally transform the nation’s higher education system. By passing the Build Back Better Act, Congress can give students immediate aid and support while also making systemic reforms to reverse the damaging cycle of state funding cuts.

While the Build Back Better Act is not perfect, it represents a pivotal step forward for millions of students. It is the culmination of a lengthy legislative negotiation aimed at addressing the priorities of a diverse set of stakeholders and will undoubtedly need to be improved upon in the years to come. But students cannot afford to wait any longer for Congress to make long-overdue investments in them and their futures.

Jessica Thompson is an associate vice president for The Institute for College Access & Success

Originally published at https://ticas.org on October 14, 2021.

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