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An argument against free community college tuition

Seventeen states in the U.S. now offer free community college tuition, and existing programs cover tuition for many students. But President Biden wants to make that happen nationwide. This week we'll explore both sides of the debate over free community college and Biden's plan, beginning with former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the debate over providing free tuition for community college.

    Seventeen states already do so, and existing programs cover tuition for many students. but President Biden wants to make that happen nationwide. His plan starts with $109 billion to cover full tuition for community college. States would be asked to match a dollar for every three allocated in federal money.

    His plan also includes an $85 billion investment in Pell Grants for students in need at both two- and four-year colleges. And there's another $62 billion for resources to help students complete their degree, money for transportation and tutoring, for example.

    We are going to get different takes over the next two nights for our series on Rethinking College.

    To begin, I'm joined by Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush, and the former head of the University of North Carolina system. She's now president and CEO of Texas 2036. It's a policy group to make Texas successful after its bicentennial.

    Margaret Spellings, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Thank you for joining us.

    I'm looking at something that President Biden said when he was making this proposal. He said: "It's not enough to restore where we were before the pandemic. We need to build a stronger economy that does not leave anyone behind."

    What about that rationale for this?

  • Margaret Spellings:

    Well, it makes all the sense in the world.

    And I commend him really for investing in American higher education. We know that most of the jobs of today and certainly the future require higher levels of education. And, right now, we're following — falling woefully short of having all our people with the skills needed to really access the economy.

    So, at the top line, I really commend that goal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me just go beyond that, then, because what the president has pointed out and the people who advocate for this point out is, the people who have most benefited from community college are people at the lower income scale, people who haven't had the opportunity.

    In other words, it's a way to target those individuals who had the least opportunity in the past, as an argument for putting this kind of money into it.

  • Margaret Spellings:

    Well, and we know that so many of our — the majority of our community college students really are taking remedial education, levels of basic literacy and math that should have been learned in high school.

    And so, sadly, our completion rates towards an associate's degree or to something, really a meaningful credential, are not very encouraging at community colleges. And when students are well-matched, they really do better in comprehensive universities, like our minority-serving institutions, HBCUs.

    So, to me, I'm a fan of the Pell Grant. I think one of the greatest assets of American higher education is for the ability for a student to take that purchases power to a place that suits them. And, certainly, that can be a community college, but isn't necessarily.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the question is, why not go ahead and give these individuals who — I looked at a number — it's something like 94 percent of total family income, on average, has gone toward education for the most disadvantaged students.

    Why not direct the money to who need it the most?

  • Margaret Spellings:

    Well, because I think, often, they're going to be better off with a comprehensive university, like an HBCU. They're going to be on track to complete and they will have a trajectory into a livelihood and, frankly, often doesn't exist when students are educated in community colleges.

    Too many of our students in community colleges are taking what we call basic education, which is really kind of literacy and math, not that they don't need that, but, really, it's we need to empower consumers with information and purchasing power to go where they see fit, including community colleges.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the administration has shared with us a number of studies that show this kind of outside financial aid does help these students toward completing their two-year degree.

    So, this would be a way of at least — for those students who can't go, for whatever reason, to a historically Black college, which you have mentioned, or to another four-year institution, at least this gets them off to a solid beginning.

  • Margaret Spellings:

    And that's why 17 states, as you rightly say, have invested in that.

    But there's also states who have invested in additional supports for four-year institutions, for technical schools, for other types of institutions. So, I think, in terms of bipartisan support, I think there will be a lot of support for the Pell Grant. That will obviously inure to the benefit of community colleges and to families.

    But let's be agnostic about the kinds of places that students might select, adult learners, those who are going straight from high school, to really chart their own path. What we really need is information as well for students to really understand, what are they getting in those community colleges? Are they a ticket to a good job or not?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is your argument that it's a waste of money?

  • Margaret Spellings:

    No, not at all.

    My argument is, let's give students financial support, especially those who need it the most, through a Pell Grant, and allow them to chart a path to their own — around their own needs, including community colleges.

    But let's not limit it to community colleges.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as we reported, there's a lively debate around this — around this issue. And we're so grateful to you, Margaret Spellings, for joining us.

    Thank you very much.

  • Margaret Spellings:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, tomorrow night, we will hear the case for providing free community college. That will come from another former secretary of education, John King, who served under President Obama.

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