The Congressional Forum

ACCT’s annual bipartisan gathering of lawmakers focused on America’s College Promise and other key issues.

ACCT’s Community College Congressional Forum drew a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday, including the primary House and Senate sponsors of legislation based on President Obama’s call to make community college free for all students.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the lead Senate sponsor of the America’s College Promise Act of 2015, compared the proposal to the movement that made high school universal and free a century ago. “It’s an immensely critical need for our country and economy,” she told Forum attendees, urging community college trustees and presidents to advocate for the law.

“I need all of your help here,” Baldwin said. “We have an incredible amount of work to do together… Don’t let the cynics tell you it can’t be done.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the House sponsor of the legislation, questioned critics of the proposal’s cost, which, with additional provisions for students at minority-serving institutions, has been estimated at $90 billion. 

“If you say we can’t afford it, you haven’t looked at the bills we pass,” Scott said. “If we make it a priority, we can go back to the days when people could go to college without incurring mortgage-sized debts. It’s a matter of priorities.”

Another House co-sponsor, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), called the proposal “the most affordable and accessible way for our people to deal with the realities of the economy.” 

America’s College Promise, Grijalva said, is “about putting the investment where the investment is most appropriate…. It acknowledges that the reality of our changing times, demands on our workforce, and the diversity of this nation requires a learning space that is accessible and community-based, and that’s community colleges.” 

The legislation also includes provisions that community colleges “must take measures that students who enter complete,” Grijalva said. States participating in the law’s 75-25 funding split are also required to improve transfer to four-year institutions. And, Grijalva added, “if you’re going to provide that transition bridge to a four-year institution, the flexibility of the Pell Grant is essential.”

Former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democratic House leader, said America’s College Promise, if enacted, will “unleash the true transformational potential of community college for millions more Americans.”

“Now is really the time for bold ideas,” Pelosi said. “You are one of the greatest assets we have in the fight against inequality. Understand how important you are.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said the proposal “strengthens our economy from the middle out, not the top down.” While community colleges have historically offered students low tuition, living expenses put higher education out of reach for many, she added, noting recent studies showing significant numbers of students who have experienced homelessness and hunger.

The proposal was one of a broad range of higher education issues lawmakers discussed during the Forum. Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise (R-La.) stressed the importance of ensuring that community colleges have the flexibility to create effective workforce programs. 

“We’ve got to make sure you have the flexibility you need to complete your mission,” said Scalise, the House Majority Whip. “[Employers] are looking for specific skills. They’re not looking for skills from four-year colleges, but community colleges.”

Several lawmakers spoke to the need to expand the Pell Grant program, including the reinstatement of year-round Pell and continue to restore grants to larger number of ability to benefit (ATB) students. “So-called nontraditional students have become the new norm,” Murray said. Grijalva urged community college leaders to “make the case for reality-based Pell Grants.”

Murray pointed to successful efforts to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act last year. She told Forum attendees that Senate Democrats are focusing this year on reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which together would provide a unified pathway “making sure students from all walks of life have a clear pathway to and through college,” she said.

Speakers also urged community college leaders to continue advocating for their institutions. “We have debates in Congress about budgets, but we have to put these debates in context with a few facts,” said Pelosi. “Nothing returns more money to the treasury of the United States than investing in education… To close the opportunity gap, we must close the gap in education. Community colleges are a crucial link in that bridge to education and opportunity.”

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