College & Workforce Readiness

Enthusiasm and Caution Follow Obama’s Free Community College Proposal

By Caralee J. Adams — January 09, 2015 4 min read
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The idea of free community college for all has tremendous appeal to students and many in the higher education community.

However, President Obama’s brief proposal preview last night to have the federal government and states takes pick up the tab for two years of tuition has left observers eager for details—and some wary of the approach or the support needed to fund it.

The administration’s proposal, America’s College Promise, comes on the heels a similar program in Tennessee that was adopted last year and championed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. The Tennessee Promise, which is supported primarily with a lottery endowment, is a scholarship and mentoring program that will begin in the fall of 2015. Of the state’s 65,000 high school seniors, nearly 56,000 have applied for the program as of last month, The Tennessean reports.

President Obama, who will discuss his new initiative in a speech in Tennessee today and in his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, will be asking the federal government to pay for three-quarters of the cost of community college tuition (on average $3,800 per year for full-time students) and states would have the option of participating and paying the remaining expenses, according to a fact sheet posted this morning on the White House web site. If fully implemented, it could assist 9 million community college students.

David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, said the move would be a tremendous investment in community college students and the association would support any such effort to enhance access, although details would need to be worked out.

“Financial barriers continue to inhibit full participation in our programs and this proposal, if enacted, would do a great deal to lessen them,” Baime said in an email Thursday night.

As for the likelihood of becoming a reality and being funded, Baime said the proposal will face “tough sledding” in Congress, yet support for the community college student mission and their students remains strong.

The Institute for College Access and Support, a nonprofit that advocates for increased access to higher education, posted a blog calling free community college tuition a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and not a panacea.

“Making tuition free for all students regardless of their income is a missed opportunity to focus resources on the students who need aid the most,” according to the TICAS blog. The post was updated late last night, noting that the federal proposal would differ from the Tennessee program, which is a “last-dollar” scholarship program that pays for community college tuition and fees that federal programs, such as Pell Grants, do not cover.

The TICAS post explained that the White House proposal was not a “last-dollar” scholarship and instead provides additional federal funding to states that make key reforms, including not charging tuition or fees at community colleges. “It is aimed squarely at stopping state disinvestment in public colleges, which is crucial to making college more affordable. Also, unlike the Tennessee Promise, low-income students could benefit,” the blog said.

As states try new ways to keep college costs down, some have voiced criticism of the free-tuition-for-all approach for helping families who may not need assistance. Critics of the Tennessee Promise contend that Pell Grants (which is about $5,600) already cover the cost of tuition for the poorest students so offering free tuition for all merely subsidizing middle- and upper-income students.

Following Thursday night’s announcement, the Association of Community College Trustees issued a statement lauding President Obama for the “unprecedented” proposal to make community college accessible for most students. “While many of the details of the President’s plan have yet to be revealed, we are encouraged that the aid will be available to community college students, including those in greatest need,” the statement said. “Due to state disinvestment in higher education, any proposal that seeks to increase resources is greatly appreciated.”

In the video shot on Air Force One on Thursday night, President Obama alluded to the idea that his free community college proposal would not be limited to recent high school graduates.

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

Obama said education is key to success for “our kids” in the 21st century, but added that it’s not just for kids. “We also have to make sure everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits,” he said.

To qualify for the program, students must attend community college at least half-time and make steady progress toward completing their program, while maintaining at 2.5 grade point average, according to the proposed plan.

In addition to Tennessee’s work, today’s White House fact sheet said the president’s new proposal also was inspired by Chicago. The Chicago STAR Scholarship program was announced in October and sets the bar high for eligibility at a 3.0 GPA for high school graduates to attend City Colleges of Chicago at no cost.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.