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President Obama: Make Community College Free to (Most) Students

Students at Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee, where President Obama will announce the America's College Promise proposal. (Source: Pellissippi State Community College)

President Obama will be in Tennessee today, where he’s expected to reveal more details of a proposal to make the first two years of community college free to qualified students. More details will follow in the State of the Union address later this month.

Here’s what we know so far: The president’s proposal (unveiled Thursday via a video message) would offer free tuition ”for everybody who’s willing to work for it.” The federal government pick up the tab for about 75 percent of the cost of two years at a typical community college. States would have to kick in the remaining funds. Students would need to maintain a minimum 2.5 GPA, and attend classes at least half-time. As many as 9 million students could benefit, and save an average of $3,800 annually in tuition, the White House estimated

Here’s what we don’t know (and that’s a lot): Where would Congress find the money? Do states have either the interest or the resources to take this on? And do community colleges have the capacity for a sudden surge in enrollment? 

Inside Higher Ed’s Paul Fain explains why the president chose the Volunteer State to make his announcement: 

Obama said the plan was based in part on Tennessee’s example. Led by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, the state has signed up more than 90 percent of its roughly 60,000 high school graduates from 2013 for a new community college scholarship.

The Tennessee Promise will cover all the community college tuition and fees that federal grants do not for those students. They must enroll full-time and maintain a 2.0 GPA. The state has signed up more than 7,000 volunteers to serve as mentors to scholarship recipients, who must complete eight hours of community service.

During his keynote address at EWA’s National Seminar at Vanderbilt University last May, Haslam said the state’s community college plan was reshaping how young people imagined their futures. From the writeup of his remarks: 

“If we could go to every Tennessean and say, ‘We’ll give you two years of community college absolutely free,’ it would change the culture of the state more than anything because free would get everyone’s attention,” he said. Nothing he has done has touched the people, he said, quite like that offer. “It resonates with people from all walks of life,” said Haslam, who is part-owner of the multibillion-dollar Pilot Flying J truck-stop company.

“If you are a sophomore in high school not going beyond 12th grade, now there is a realistic chance,” said Haslam, a governor who once thought his future might be in the ministry. “Now there is a realistic chance they will take high school a lot more seriously.”

But another Tennessean, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, says the president shouldn’t be trying to reshape a successful state program into a federal initiative.

“The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done,” Alexander said in a statement.

A more useful federal intervention would be to reduce the complexity of the paperwork associated with Pell Grant applications, and for Congress to agree to increased college aid funding if states emulate Tennessee’s example on their own, Alexander contended. 

For more on this issue take a look at an April 2014 Lumina Foundation report by the University of Wisconsin researchers Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, which laid out a blueprint for making the first two years of college tuition-free.

Another unanswered question about the president’s proposal is whether the program will cover the costs of the developmental courses many students need to take before they can even enter courses that offer college credit. Experts discussed concerns about community college readiness at our 2014 Higher Education Seminar. The recording of that session is here



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