How Build Back Better’s Investments in Universal Pre-K and Community College Address Racial and Gender Inequities

October 15, 2021

The Build Back Better Act presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make transformative changes to our economy and society. Many of its investments represent a distinct departure from neoliberal policymaking; rather than complicated and opaque vouchers or tax incentives, the plan proposes a direct, visible, and expanded role for government. In particular, the bill’s education provisions—if they remain the same—provide a test case for how we can harness the role of government to meet pressing societal needs that have gone unmet by private actors. 

The Build Back Better Act recognizes that in today’s economy, the US needs to expand the number of years of public education available to everyone. Its investments in universal pre-K and community college take long-needed steps toward repairing racial and gender inequities by offering more accessible education, increasing wages for pre-K workers, and relieving financial debt for families and students.

Universal Pre-K Provides a Visible Benefit to Workers and Families

The Build Back Better Act would invest $200 billion in building a universal prekindergarten system for three- and four-year-olds, addressing existing inequities that prevent many families from accessing pre-K and that harm the workers providing it.  

First, and most evidently, through universal pre-K, the federal government would provide two additional years of education—a vital service for young children. Attending preschool can improve children’s academic and social-emotional skills and boost school readiness and healthy development overall. Racial disparities and gaps in education can start early, as many people of color, primarily those who live in underfunded and marginalized communities, struggle to find and afford quality early education programs despite children from these communities benefiting most from attending. Establishing a dedicated funding stream for historically marginalized communities can foster equity and remedy the failures of the private market by ensuring that pre-K programs are available in areas that have traditionally been under-resourced. 

Second, Build Back Better would address the insufficient wages earned by preschool teachers, primarily women, who play a critical role in our communities. The Build Back Better provisions require parity between teachers in publicly funded pre-K and elementary schools—demonstrating how federal provisioning can directly boost wages and improve conditions for workers. The government should also use its financial leverage to support other job protections, including paid sick days and the right to organize.  

Third, in addition to the clear benefits it provides to enrolled children, offering two years of universal pre-K would help boost women’s labor force participation. The universality of Build Back Better’s pre-K provision ensures that families who were previously unable to afford the high cost of private pre-K programs now have access to them, allowing more parents—mostly mothers, who often take on a disproportionate amount of childcare duties—to work and rectifying gender imbalances in the labor market.

Finally, by providing these clear and tangible benefits to families and early childhood educators, universal pre-K exemplifies that direct, local services can foster broader constituencies for public goods. In areas where universal pre-K is already a public service, it is an overwhelmingly successful and popular program that meets the immediate, material needs of people. These types of programs are vital in restoring public faith in the government.


Free Community College Can Increase Equity in Higher Education

While completely addressing the inequities within higher education will require funding four-year public institutions, the Build Back Better Act takes meaningful first steps in this direction by investing $111 billion to lower the cost of pursuing a postsecondary degree, including providing free community college for all students.

This offers students an option to pursue a two-year degree debt-free and significantly reduces the cost of a four-year degree, which is particularly beneficial to the Black and brown students who already make up a disproportionate share of students enrolled in community college. The bill centers racial equity even further by creating separate funding streams to subsidize the cost of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other minority-serving institutions.  

Further, free community college that is available to all without means-testing creates a public option that directly competes with for-profit institutions, reining in predatory, bad actors and curbing the extractive practices that have primarily harmed low-wealth Black and brown students.  

The free community college provision is structured in ways that ensure its durability. Designed as a federal-state partnership, it includes automatic stabilizers that increase the federal government share of costs to guarantee that states can continue to provide free community college even in times of economic downturn rather than passing the cost burden onto students and their families. The funding structure also allows states to use excess funds to make other public institutions of higher education more affordable—or even free—to encourage states to maintain robust funding for higher education while putting the systems in place to move toward federal provisioning of all public higher education. 

At their current scale and scope, the education provisions in the Build Back Better Act will not fix our country’s thorniest issues. To truly address the financial burden facing too many students, we need stronger guardrails against financialization of early childhood education, free four-year public higher education institutions, and student debt cancellation. However, Build Back Better’s education investments are notable for what they show the government can and should do. If executed successfully, these provisions can boost support for the public’s role in providing early and college education and act as an on-ramp to a broader government role in other industries.