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By Paul Bradley  /  
2015 January 19 - 07:28 pm

Obama Proposes Free Community College for All

President Barack Obama wants to make a community college education free for all Americans

President Barack Obama wants to make a community college education free for all Americans, a plan that would make a college credential as accessible as a high school diploma and boost the lagging skills of the modern workforce.

Appearing at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., the president said his plan would be modeled after the Tennessee Promise, a new program under which recent high school graduates get two years of community college tuition covered by the state, and a similar initiative in Chicago, which pays tuition for high-achieving students. In Tennessee, some 57,000 students have signed up for the program, almost 90 percent of Tennessee’s high school graduating class.

“Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it,” Obama said in the video. “It’s something that we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.”

White House officials said the plan is expected to cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years. The proposal calls for the federal government to pick up 75 percent of the cost with the balance coming from states that opt into the program. An estimated 9 million students could participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.

Students would qualify if they attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program. Unlike the Tennessee Promise program, which benefits only recent high school graduates, Obama’s plan would be extended to adult learners.

In addition, while the Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar program — covering tuition expenses not covered by other programs like Pell Grants — Obama’s proposal would cover everybody.

“It’s not just for kids,” Obama said. “We also have to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.”

Community college advocates hailed the president’s move.

“College costs are a major concern for community college students,” said Walter G. Bumphus, chairman and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Though our sector provides the most affordable entry into higher education, our institutions also serve the neediest students. As they anticipated in Tennessee and Chicago, more students would see college as a viable option as a result of this initiative.”

Said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of the Long Beach Community College District,

“This is exciting news for Long Beach City College and community colleges nationwide. If adopted, the president’s proposal would make higher education more affordable and accessible for millions of students.”

But others were troubled by the lack of detail in the proposal.

“Obama’s proposal invests in students, which is a good thing, but does not invest in community colleges so they can implement reforms that help students succeed,” said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Successful programs....cost money to implement.”

“Overall, free community college tuition will not necessarily improve completion: even with low tuition, many community college students fail to earn a credential. This proposal should be one part of broader reforms to community colleges to improve success.”

In Washington, the proposal encountered a hostile reception from Republicans who control both houses of Congress.

“Encouraging more individuals to pursue training or earn a college degree is a national priority and community colleges play a vital role in that effort,” said a statement issued by U.S. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “But make no mistake, the president is proposing yet another multi-billion dollar federal program that will compete with existing programs for limited taxpayer dollars.”

“Unless the president has a responsible plan to meet our existing commitments, he shouldn’t be making new promises the American people can’t afford. Instead, the president should work with Congress in crafting a comprehensive, bipartisan plan that strengthens access to higher education for all Americans.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary who heads the Senate committee that oversees education, said states and not the federal government should follow Tennessee’s lead. He said Washington’s role should be to reduce paperwork for the student aid application and fund Pell grants for low-income students that would result in an expansion of community college enrollment.

“The reason Tennessee can afford Tennessee Promise is that 56 percent of our state’s community college students already have a federal Pell grant, which averages $3,300, to help pay for the average $3,800- per-year tuition. The state pays the difference — $500 on average.”

White House officials acknowledged the Republican opposition, but said they wanted to start a national conversation about the proposal.

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