CT could pitch in half the cost of Biden's free preschool and community college plan

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to create a universal pre-kindergarten program that’s free for all three and four year olds. He also has proposed offering free community college for anyone who wants it.

The group that won’t participate for free is states. Biden’s plan to pay for these programs requires some state governments to shoulder roughly half the costs for their residents.

Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye estimated that the state will pay about $420 million annually to send 70,000 three and four-year olds to preschool for free, once Biden’s program is fully phased in. According to the White House, the federal government will initially shoulder 90 percent of the cost, but over time the federal-state cost sharing will be equally divided.

Meanwhile, based on an analysis of the legislation behind Biden’s proposal by New America and Connecticut’s current community college for-credit enrollment, the state could pay about $65.4 million a year. The White House has said it will fund 75 percent of the average cost of community college in the U.S., while states will pick up the remaining quarter.

In states like Connecticut, where community college tuition is higher than the national average, states will pay whatever is needed to bring student tuition costs down to zero. That means Connecticut will pay $1,677 per community college student, per New America — or about 48 percent of the cost, while the feds chip in 52 percent.

In 13 states, the federal-state match rate would be one to one or the state would pay more, Carey found.

Biden has asked Congress for $309 billion to fund his proposals, but the federal-state partnerships that he’s outlined will shift much of the bill to state coffers. Some wonder whether this model will create a patchwork system with free preschool and community college in some states but not in others, depending on who is willing and able to pay up.

“The big question is how many states are going to participate,” said Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America. “I’m skeptical.”

The White House does not have estimates for how much each state will pay under these proposals, an administration official said. Things could change as Congress finalizes the bill text and negotiates passage.

Max Reiss, communications director for Gov. Ned Lamont, said while the state did not have specifics on these free education proposals yet, Connecticut is generally supportive as “we’re laying the foundation consistent with where the Biden administration is going to go.” He added that the White House has collaborated clearly and consistently with governors on other recent partnerships.

Connecticut already makes investments to bring down the costs of child care and community college in the state. For community college, Connecticut already plans to pay $14 million next fiscal year for a last dollar program to help defray the cost of tuition for some students, said Ben Barnes, chief financial officer for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities. Biden’s plan would require more than four times that spending.

On the child care side, Connecticut pays about $162.5 million a year to subsidize child costs for low-income families and improve the quality of child care centers and home-based care, Bye said. Also, local governments chip in about $200 million a year toward preschool in public schools. Connecticut would need to pay roughly $77.5 million more per year under Biden’s plan, once it is fully phased in.

“You get almost half way there with what is happening now,” said Bye, referring to current state and local investments. “Most states are not in this position.”

Like the Affordable Care Act did for health insurance, Biden’s education proposals will establish new state-federal partnerships to defray the cost of a service that politicians have decided is critical and worth society’s investment.

“There are 12 states that have still not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in a 100 to zero match for the first however many years and then long-term 90 to 10,” Carey said. “The best here is 75-25 or for low-income tuition states it would be better than 75-25. But if you’re one of those 13 states where the match rate is essentially one to one or worse, are you going to do this? I don’t know.”

White House officials are hopeful that their vision for free universal preschool and community college will be fully realized through state and federal partnerships. One official noted there is often bipartisan support for these education initiatives at the state level. If a state opts out, the federal government could also work directly with a town or a community college to try to implement free programs.

Negotiating and implementing these proposals could take significant time, especially where unions are involved, said Bob Palaich of APA Consulting, who helps states design and evaluate education policy.

But in his joint address to Congress, Biden argued that public K-12 education is no longer enough in today’s economy. Supporting quality early childhood education will set kids up for academic success and help more women participate in the workforce, he said.

“The upside is the kids and their families absolutely need it,” Palaich said. “The thing that is most clear as a result of the pandemic, once you lock young families homes with their kids… you also start losing a large percentage of your workforce mostly female.”

On the other end, free community college is more likely to help low-income and minority students or those interested in vocational studies attain higher education.

Connecticut officials Bye and Barnes celebrated Biden’s plans.

Currently, 14,000 three and four-year-olds in Connecticut — 20 percent of all kids that age — receive preschool education subsidized by the state because of their low-income status, Bye said. About 18,800 kids attend in preschool in public schools.

The average cost of care at a Connecticut child care center for a toddler is $16,000, the White House said.

“70 percent of parents are paying for preschool and child care all on their own right now,” Bye said. “It’s a game changer for families and frankly to me, it’s a game changer for the quality of preschool if you put the focus on fully funding the full cost of quality... it’s been since [President Richard] Nixon that we had something like this on the table.”

Connecticut’s 12 community colleges have a nominal cost of tuition and fees of $4,476 per year for a full-time, for-credit student, Barnes said. Currently, the average cost per full-time student is about $2,400 per year, after financial aid is applied.

Some 38,978 students enrolled in for-credit courses, equating to 22,681 full-time equivalent students in the fall of 2020, Barnes said. Also, 22,028 students took what are known as “non-credit” courses, often the vocational and workforce training courses.

Federal financial aid does not apply to non-credit students currently; the legislation that Biden’s community college proposal is modeled on does not extend free college to these students. But Biden’s other workforce training proposals in his $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill could offer support to these students, a congressional aide suggested.

“We’re all very excited about it,” said Barnes. “We are in a great position to begin with... free for everybody, that would be a tremendous enhancement for us.”

Biden has also issued other proposals to make child care and community college more affordable in his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. He would increase the maximum Pell Grant size for low-income students by about $1,400. He would also provide two-years of subsidized tuition at historically black colleges and universities and minority serving institutions.

The White House said for the most hard-pressed working families, his plan would ensure child care costs for their young children would be fully covered and families earning 1.5 times their state median income will pay no more than 7 percent of their income for all children under age five.

emilie.munson@hearstdc.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson