Obama wants to make community college free. Here's how he plans to do it

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President Obama wants to make two years of community college free for anyone "willing to work for it," he announced Thursday.


The president will discuss his plan on Friday during a visit to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee.


This sounds great! Tell me more.

The president's plan would allow students to complete the first half of a bachelor's degree for free at publicly funded community colleges across the country.

The proposal wouldn't just impact recent high-school graduates, either. It would let older Americans take part, too. To qualify, people would need to go to school at least part-time, keep a 2.5 or higher GPA, and progress toward a degree or certificate, meaning that participants could also work part-time.

The White House predicts making community college free could help up to 9 million people save an average of nearly $4,000 in tuition per year.


What prompted this idea?

The U.S. once had the most educated workforce in the world, but that's no longer the case. The president has said over and over again that he wants American workers to be competitive in a global economy. But right now, too many Americans, disproportionately minorities, cannot afford to pay for a college degree and are left behind. Student debt has also ballooned beyond a trillion dollars in recent years as tuition has skyrocketed.



Even though Republicans now control both the House and the Senate, Obama has pledged to do everything in his power to pursue his policy agenda. While it includes controversial topics like immigration reform, higher education is one where there's actually some agreement, so it's no surprise that the president is being vocal about his plans.


Education also consistently ranks toward the top of Americans' priorities and the idea of free community college will likely play well. It's something the president will talk more about during his State of the Union address in a couple of weeks, but announcing his plan early will let the White House begin to campaign for public support.

Is there a catch?

Yes, and a big one, which means Obama is going to need all the public support he can muster. The president will have to convince a Republican-controlled Congress that the plan is worth funding. The White House has said it would like the federal government to pay for about 75 percent of the cost of making community college free, and for states to pick up the rest of the tab. It's not clear yet exactly where the funding will come from, but the White House said the plan will cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years. The White House is set to outline more specifics when it proposes the budget for the coming year, due in February. The president will need to convince a Republican Congress that such an expensive program is worthwhile.


So is this dead in the water?

Not necessarily. Here's where the location of Obama's announcement comes into play. The fact that he's in Tennessee is not random. The state's Republican governor, Bill Haslam, championed and signed into law a program called the Tennessee Promise, which provides two years of free community college and technical training to recent high school seniors. The White House has praised the Republican governor and said its own plan is modeled after Haslam's. Haslam's program has also been praised by Sen. Lamar Alexander, one of the state's Republican senators and new chair of the Senate's education committee.


A few Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, have criticized the lack of specifics in the president's plan, but they haven't shot down the actual idea. The trick will be convincing lawmakers that the idea is worth pursuing at the federal level. Tennessee's program is paid for mostly with lottery funds.

I've heard of the Tennessee program. Is this exactly the same?

Not entirely. While the Tennessee program applies only to recent high-school graduates, Obama's plan would let adults who might have dropped out of school go back to college. Participating colleges will need to offer credits that can be transferred to four-year schools or technical training programs that have a track record of leading to jobs. The idea is to give all adults, regardless of age or life-stage, the skills they need to become productive members of the workforce.


You just mentioned technical training programs - did Obama mention anything about technical colleges?

Yes. While most of the focus has been on the idea of free community colleges, the president also announced that he'd like to create a program called the American Technical Training Fund. The program, modeled after one in Tennessee (Tennessee is getting major education props from the White House these days!), would create a fund that would help people pursuing jobs in growing industries like information technology get the required training. It would reward programs, within community colleges or as separate entities, that create strong partnerships with employers, offer hands-on learning and accommodate students who work part-time.


Interesting. Where can I read more?

The White House has published a fact sheet about the proposal that you can read here. Also worth reading is David Leonhardt's New York Times piece on the roots of Obama's proposal. The United States was the world's most educated country in the 20th century, he explains, because the U.S. created a universal high school system. It might be time to try to reclaim that distinction by again expanding education access.


"Nearly a century has passed since the universal high school movement took off in the United States," Leonhardt writes. "And the world is clearly a far different place today than it was 100 years ago, with success depending vastly more on knowledge than it used to. If 13 years of education — K-through-12 — was the right amount of education for the typical citizen back then, it surely is not still the right amount today."

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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