Obama Proposes Free Community College for Millions of Students

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“What I’d like to do is see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it,” President Obama said in a video preview of the plan. “It’s something we can accomplish and something that will train our work force so we can compete with anyone in the world.”
January 08, 2015

[Updated (1/9/2015, 6:45 a.m.) to include new details from a statement by the Institute for College Access and Success.]

Millions of students nationwide could be eligible for two years of free community-college tuition under a proposal that President Obama will outline on Friday during an appearance at Pellissippi State Community College, in Tennessee.

The proposal, which would require approval by the Republican-controlled Congress and would carry an unspecified price tag, calls for the federal government to pick up the tab for about three-quarters of students’ tuition costs. Participating states would kick in the rest, and if all of them joined in, about nine million students could benefit each year, with full-time students saving an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.

The America’s College Promise plan, as the proposal has been dubbed, is modeled after the Tennessee Promise, a program that will use lottery money to cover community-college tuition for all of that state’s high-school seniors, starting this fall. Nine out of 10 of Tennessee’s graduating seniors have applied to the program—more than twice as many as initially expected. State officials predict that 12,000 to 16,000 of them will end up enrolling in two-year colleges.

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Obama-administration officials gave a preview of the White House plan during a call with reporters Thursday evening, shortly after the president gave a sneak peak in a video shot aboard Air Force One and posted on Facebook.

"What I’d like to do is see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it," Mr. Obama said. "It’s something we can accomplish and something that will train our work force so we can compete with anyone in the world."

Within minutes, reactions began pouring in, ranging from the view that the proposal amounts to a "potential game changer" for higher education to the warning that it could be a "wolf in sheep’s clothing" because it might not benefit those who need it most.

The plan is just as significant as the move, nearly a century ago, to make high school free and open to all, according to Cecilia Muñoz, the White House's domestic-policy director. Asked repeatedly for details on how much the program would cost the federal government, Ms. Muñoz said the information would be released later, with the president’s 2016 budget plan.

"It is a significant proposal, and states will have to take the lead," she said. "We don’t expect it to happen overnight."

Asked about the likelihood that Congress would approve such an expensive proposal, Ms. Muñoz said Tennessee, with its Republican governor, William E. Haslam, is proof that the program has bipartisan appeal. A similar program has been started in Chicago.

The program is needed at a time when the United States has lost the distinction of having the most educated work force in the world, she said. By 2020, about 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate degree, she added.

Academic Standards

"Today, more than ever, Americans need more knowledge and skills to meet the demands of a growing global economy without having to take on decades of debt before they even embark on their career," the White House said in a fact sheet released on Thursday. The nation’s roughly 1,100 community colleges, which educate about 40 percent of American college students, are the best place to start, it said.

To participate, students would have to attend at least half time, maintain a 2.5 grade-point average while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program. The money could only be used for academic programs that fully transfer to public four-year colleges or to job-training programs that have high graduation rates and also lead to degrees and certificates in high-demand fields.

States would have to continue their existing higher-education spending, coordinate efforts among schools and colleges to reduce the need for remediation, and allocate "a significant portion of funding based on performance," and not just enrollment.

"This proposal will require everyone to do their part: Community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate," the fact sheet states.

Praise and Concerns

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, called the plan "a potential game changer that could encourage millions more students to consider, apply, and enroll in postsecondary education."

It is hard to predict, though, how a policy that has worked well in Tennessee would translate to the national stage, she said. "There is still much we do not know about the details of this ambitious plan, such as institutional eligibility criteria and the requirements that would be imposed on states that want to participate."

Morley Winograd, who leads the Campaign for Free College Tuition, a nonprofit group that promotes similar programs across the country, released a written statement saying the plan "would transform the nation’s higher-education system and help countless families make the American dream a reality for their children," cutting the cost of a four-year college degree in half for many students.

Others questioned whether the proposal would do enough to help low-income Americans. The Institute for College Access and Success, an education-advocacy group known as Ticas, said plans for free community-college tuition often amount to "a wolf in sheep’s clothing."

"While well intentioned and politically popular, these plans are regressive and inefficient," it said.

But after releasing a statement late Thursday criticizing the Tennessee Promise and similar free-tuition programs, Ticas updated its statement early Friday to say it had just learned that the proposal outlined on Thursday differed from the Tennessee plan and others that are "last dollar" scholarships, paying only the portion of tuition not covered by other financial aid. Those plans tend to benefit students who can already afford to pay for college.

The White House proposal "provides additional federal funding to states that make key reforms, including not charging tuition or fees at community colleges," the updated statement says. "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."

Still, it said, "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."

Advocates for four-year colleges have also questioned whether such plans could cut into enrollments that are already sagging due to the decreasing number of high-school-age students.

The Association of Community College Trustees said it welcomed the proposal and looked forward to more details: "Due to state disinvestment in higher education, any proposal that seeks to increase resources is greatly appreciated."

David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges, said it’s clear the proposal "will face tough sledding in Congress. But we also know that there is strong support across the board for the colleges and the students who rely on them. The fact that the colleges focus on employment opportunities is also a political plus."

Making College a ‘Viable Option’

A Tennessee educator who’s gotten a close look at that state’s program said she was surprised, and pleased, to see a proposal to expand the idea nationally before the first students had even enrolled in her state.

"Eliminating the cost barrier makes college a viable option to many students who otherwise wouldn’t have considered it," said Angela Boatman, an assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Ms. Boatman, who is mentoring five high-school seniors who have applied through the state’s program, is an expert on community colleges and barriers to college success.

On Friday the president will also propose a new fund that would expand technical-training programs to help low-wage workers quickly gain the skills they need to get jobs in growing fields such as energy, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at

Correction (1/9/2015, 4:15 p.m.): This article originally said that a statement released by the Institute for College Access and Success criticized the White House proposal. In fact, the statement criticized community-college plans like the Tennessee Promise. The text has been corrected.