Obama Plan Would Make Community College Free

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SCRANTON, PA - AUGUST 23: U.S. President Barack Obama, (L) speaks at an event as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, (R), looks on at Lackawanna College on August 23, 2013 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Obama is on his second day of a bus tour of New York and Pennsylvania to discuss his plan to make college more affordable, tackle rising costs, and improve value for students and their families. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/2012 Getty Images

Stop reading if you don’t want any State of the Union spoilers, because as part of a new promotional strategy President Obama just unveiled a big proposal he’ll make in the speech. In a video posted to Facebook on Thursday evening, the president said he wants to make the first two years of community college free for “everyone who is willing to work for it.” That means that as long as students attend school at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and are making “steady progress” toward completing their program, tuition will be covered by the government. “It’s something we can accomplish and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world,” Obama said.

Full-time tuition for community college is $3,800 a year on average, and the White House said the program could benefit up to 9 million students. In addition to providing greater opportunities for lower-income students, The Wall Street Journal notes there’s an upside for the economy, as “business leaders are deeply concerned with a skills gap that has left hundreds of thousands of jobs unfilled across the country for lack of qualified workers.” Tuition would only be covered at community colleges offering programs that can transfer credits to four-year schools, or those with occupational training programs for in-demand jobs. 

The program would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, which has rejected three Obama proposals aimed at expanding community-college programs. And the GOP has already noted that it’s unclear how this program would be funded. The White House said the federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost, and participating states would make up the rest. A source told Bloomberg News that the program would cost $5 billion, and experts suggested it could be more like tens of billions of dollars. “With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” said Cory Fritz, House Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary.

Still, there’s some potential for bipartisan support. The program was inspired by Tennessee Promise, a program that provides free community-college tuition for any high-school senior in the state. When Obama outlines his proposal in Knoxville tomorrow, two Tennessee Republicans will be standing by his side: Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Lamar Alexander. “This is a proposal with bipartisan appeal,” White House policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz told reporters. And even if it isn’t, the president gets to accuse Republicans of heartlessly killing a plan that would help millions of students.