President Obama made a splash Thursday night with his announcement that the White House would push for free community college nationally “for everybody who’s willing to work for it.” By Friday morning, it was clear the president’s plan had struck a chord:
The #FreeCommunityCollege video on Facebook has 5.2 million views. It’s now our top Facebook video ever. Powerful issue, powerful medium
— Dan Pfeiffer (@pfeiffer44) January 9, 2015
The president provided no further details of the plan in a speech in Knoxville, Tenn., on Friday, other than to give it a name: “America’s College Promise.” That left the higher-education world abuzz over these four questions:
1. Is it politically plausible?
With a newly minted Republican majority in Congress, this is the key question for any White House initiative that requires legislative action. The Obama administration has already touted the proposal’s “bipartisan appeal,” pointing to the Tennessee Promise, the free-college plan that originated under the state’s Republican governor, William E. Haslam. But Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the education committee, has already come out against the idea, saying states should act on their own to mimic Tennessee’s initiative. That does not bode well.
2. Is it the best way to help affordability?
Observers were quick to point out that the neediest students can, in many cases, get free community-college tuition through Pell Grants. A free-college program might instead give incentives to students who could afford to attend four-year universities to go to community colleges instead.
3. What’s so special about community colleges?
In other words, why concentrate an access initiative on this one sector of higher education?
— Carlo Salerno (@EDAnalyst) January 9, 2015
David A. Bergeron, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, told Politico this morning that he was concerned about unintended effects of the measure. “I don’t want to just have our low-income and least-prepared students going to community colleges,” he said, “because those community colleges are the least resourced.”
4. Cost, cost, cost, cost …
The Obama administration announced on Friday that the program would cost the federal government $60-billion over 10 years. But the federal government will be picking up only 75 percent of the cost to the students, with participating states kicking in the other quarter.
The plan proposes covering the “average cost” of community college, but it’s unclear what exactly that means. Is it a national average? Does it include fees? Would students in states that decline to put up funding still be able to participate?