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Learning Curve

Obama proposes free community college plan

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Jan 9, 2015
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President Barack Obama traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., Friday to unveil a proposal to cover the cost of two years of community college for most Americans.

Under the plan, the federal government would cover three-quarters of the average community college cost, which could save one full-time student about $3,800 in tuition a year, according to the White House. States would have to pony up the rest if they choose to participate. Students would also have to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and at least half-time enrollment.

Obama announced the program Friday afternoon at Pellissippi State Community College. Students in the audience cheered when he mentioned the idea of free tuition.

“I want to make it free,” he said. “No one with the drive and discipline should be locked out of opportunity, or denied a college education just because they don’t have the money.”

Obama said he wanted two years of college to be as free and universal as public high school is today. A degree, he said, is a sure ticket to the middle class. The plan is also being applauded in some academic circles. 

“Students who go to community colleges and get associates degrees as well as students who get bachelor’s degrees end up earning significantly more than, students who, say, stop at high school, ” says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, says she wishes Obama had targeted just for the neediest students.

“You’re spreading available resources across many that don’t need them, and leaving those with the  greatest need still facing substantial affordability barriers,” she says.

The plan was inspired by a similar program that went into effect last year in Tennessee, called Tennessee Promise. The state was the first in the nation to pay for every student to go to community college for free. In that program, students must first apply for federal financial aid and the state pays whatever tuition is left over. Inspired by the program, Obama named his initiative America’s College Promise.

Since the funding would come out of the federal budget, the president still faces opposition from Congress. Republicans, who are now in the majority, aren’t likely to approve the president’s plan. Still, there’s optimism.

“The headline ‘free community college’ is valuable in itself, if it sort of plants the seed that, you can do this,” says Matt Reed, vice president of academic affairs at Holyoke Community College.

Just the publicity generated by the president’s proposal could make low-income students more aware of financial aid that’s already available, Reed says. Obama says he plans to spell out his plan further in his State of the Union address later this month.

“Here in America, we don’t guarantee equal outcomes … but we do expect that everybody gets an equal shot,” Obama said in his announcement.

Details about the $60 billion federal cost will be included in the 2016 budget Obama will send to Congress Feb. 2, according to a statement from Eric Schultz, deputy White House press secretary.


America’s College Promise, by the numbers

$80 billion

Total cost for the proposed program over the next 10 years.

3/4

The portion of the average cost of community college the federal government will cover, with states funding the rest.

$3,800

Average tuition savings per year for a full-time community college student.

9 million

Students who will benefit every year, if all 50 states implement the plan.

35%

Estimated percent of job openings that will require at least a bachelor’s degree by 2020.

2.5

GPA students must maintain to be eligible for free tuition.

1,100

Total number of community colleges nationwide.

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