“Ultimately, that is a state responsibility,” Mr. Lankford said.
House Republicans, who denounced Mr. Biden’s plan when he proposed it, argued in a statement that “eliminating tuition and fees at the nation’s cheapest colleges does not solve the college affordability crisis.”
But Walter G. Bumphus, the president and chief executive of the American Association of Community Colleges, said Mr. Biden’s plan demonstrated his deep knowledge of the barriers facing the 12 million students the nation’s community colleges serve annually. The first lady, Jill Biden, is a longtime community college professor.
“Eliminating tuition, increasing support for workforce education and providing needed resources to increase student success and completion take direct aim at those barriers,” Mr. Bumphus said in a statement, “and will help us to eradicate them and clear the pathway to a better future for students, for communities and for the nation.”
The Biden administration looked to Tennessee, one of the first states to offer free community college program, for guidance on its proposal. Its program, called Tennessee Promise, provides “last-dollar” scholarships for students to attend two-year community colleges and other programs, basically covering whatever cost remains after they have exhausted their financial aid.
Shanna L. Jackson, the president of Nashville State Community College, told reporters this year that among the biggest lessons from the Tennessee program was that “free college is not free,” and students are often burdened by other costs like transportation, textbooks and child care.
“There’s a very real cost for students in urban and rural areas who have to cut back on hours of work to be successful,” Ms. Jackson said, adding that the burden disproportionately fell on low-income and minority students.
She added that there was also a “significant equity gap between Black and white students” who enrolled through the state program. For example, among the Promise program’s 2017 cohort, 26 percent of white beneficiaries completed their degrees in five semesters, while only 9 percent of Black students did.