RepBobbyScott1

Bobby Scott is a U.S. representative from Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Two members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently sponsored a bill that would allow, for the first time in the nation’s history, qualified students to attend a community college for free.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, co-introduced the”America’s College Promise Act of 2015″ with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on July 8. The bill, with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) as another co-introducer, would allow community college students to pay no tuition if they maintain a certain grade point average and are making progress toward an associate degree or certificate.

“Students and families are faced with the overwhelming burden of figuring out how to pay for college,” Scott, who has served in the House since 1993, said on the House floor. “America’s College Promise is a step in the right direction to help families gain access to quality, affordable higher education opportunities.”

The bill puts into legislation President Obama’s America’s College Promise initiative, that he announced on Jan. 9 in Knoxville, Tenn., to offer tuition-free community college for students who are making progress toward a degree and maintaining a 2.5 grade point average. Obama’s initiative can be accomplished through the action and cooperation of individual states and jurisdictions but only Congress can create a national federally-funded free community college program.

Scott said the bill would help people of color and low-income Americans become competitive in the nation’s changing work environment because studies and statistics have shown that these two groups tend to struggle financially to pay for higher education. “At a time when families feel like they’re increasingly having to adapt to a changing economy and technology, America’s College Promise creates a way for them to gain the skills they need to compete in a 21st century economy,” he said.

Tennessee instituted a similar program last year and two weeks ago, the Oregon legislature passed a bill along the same lines. The Oregon bill awaits the signature of Gov. Kate Brown (D). In February, D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) introduced the “Community College for All Scholarship Act of 2015” to allow students at the Community College of the District of Columbia who maintain a 2.0 grade point average, make progress toward a degree, and participate in community service projects, to have their tuition waived. Orange’s bill is presently under council review in the Committee of the Whole, according to the D.C. Council’s website.

The Scott-Booker-Baldwin bill would create a new partnership between the federal government and states/Indian tribes to help them waive tuition for two years of community college and technical programs; provide a federal match of $3 for every $1 invested by the state to tuition and fees before other financial aid is applied; ensures that academic credits are transferrable to state-funded four-year institutions or occupational training in industries that need manpower; maintains and encourages state funding for higher education, and establishes a new grant program for minority-serving institutions by helping them cover a significant portion of tuition and fees for the first two years of attendance for low-income students.

On the Senate floor Booker said, “our greatest national asset is the genius of our young people” but noted rising college costs as a deterrent for many to pursue higher education. “Our bill provides the kind of support many young people need to reach their potential by creating strategic partnerships between the federal and state governments so that all students have a fair shot at achieving the American Dream.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told the AFRO that he supports the legislation, but would make some changes. “I’d like to see the bill expanded to include historically Black colleges and universities,” Jeffries said. “In that way, a greater number of people would be positively impacted by the bill.”

The bill has the support of Obama administration officials such as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, 60 members of the House and nine senators including Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and organizations such as the American Association of Community Colleges, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and the United Negro College Fund. However, the concept of free community college isn’t embraced by all.

“Low-income students already have access to federal Pell Grants, which can be used to finance their tuition obligations at a community college,” Lindsey Burke, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, told the The Daily Signal in January. “So the proposal will serve as little more than a federal handout to the community college system.”

Nevertheless, Duncan said that the bill meets an important need. “Community colleges are not just a uniquely American institution, but as the largest most affordable segment of America’s higher education system, they are critical to reaching the president’s goal to have the highest share of college graduates in the world and to ensuring America’s economic prosperity in the future,” he said.