Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Obama calls for ‘free and universal’ community college

President’s plan would offer two free years of community college to students with 2.5 GPA, give states choice to opt in

President Barack Obama on Friday formally introduced his plan to offer two years of free community college to all students who maintain a certain grade-point average, a program he said would enhance American workers’ skills and guarantee their competitiveness in an economy that all but requires a post-secondary degree.

“Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today,” he told a crowd of students at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a speech that followed a video message about the program that he posted to Facebook late Thursday.

The proposal, which the president plans to mention during his upcoming State of the Union address, is modeled after Tennessee Promise, a similar program led by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam that offers two years of free community college tuition to the state’s graduating high school seniors on a "last-dollar" basis. Tennessee Promise pays for tuition costs that aren’t covered by other grants such as Pell or HOPE — the last dollars of the tuition bill — using $300 million in unclaimed proceeds from the Tennessee state lottery. An estimated 12,000 students are expected to begin the program this fall.

“I want to make it free,” Obama said, describing America’s College Promise, the proposed federal program. “Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it. Because in America a quality education cannot be a privilege reserved for the few.”

The Obama administration has said it hopes the program would cover the costs of $3,800 in community college tuition per year for up to 9 million full-time students, who must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to qualify. The proposal could cost as much as $60 billion program over 10 years, and it would be up to individual states to choose to participate. The federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost, and the states would chip in the remaining 25 percent — a feat that could be a challenge in a highly divided Congress.

Perhaps in anticipation of GOP reluctance to approve such a hefty price tag, Obama pointed out that Gov. Haslam, a Republican, had managed to work with legislators across the aisle to offer Tennessee students “free college education for the first time in decades.” He also cited a similar program in Chicago, which is under Democratic leadership. “This isn’t a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” Obama said. “This is an American issue. The president will send legislation for the program to Congress in the coming weeks.

White House domestic policy director Cecilia Muñoz told reporters on Thursday that approval in Tennessee, a Republican-run state, showed that similar plans could work on a national level. "This is a proposal with bipartisan appeal," she said. "Making sure that students have access to higher education and the skills that they need is not a partisan proposal."

However, some GOP lawmakers and education policy experts have expressed doubts about the workability of such a program on a federal level, since community college costs are controlled by individual states. "Creating a federal program to me is not the way to get good things to happen in education," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters from the audience at Obama’s speech. "You're always better off letting states mimic each other.”

Sandy Baum, an author and educator who studies trends in college costs, told NPR: “For the president to say we're going to make [community college] free all over the country, it's not clear how the federal government would do that."

Because community colleges in most states are largely affordable and are already free for low-income students, she said, she’s concerned about re-allocating college tuition funds.

“It's not that there's something wrong with it being free," said Baum. "It's that it's wrong to allocate our scarce funds when you have a lot of low income students who are struggling to pay their living costs."

With wire services

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