Obama proposes two free years of community college nationwide

By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 10, 2015

President Barack Obama joined a group of students and faculty at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn. Friday to propose one of his most far-reaching initiatives to date for improving college access: providing two free years of community college.

“Some people have good luck; some people have bad luck and things don’t always work out where everything is perfectly equal,” Obama said. “But we do expect that everybody gets an equal shot.”

According to a White Househttp://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/09/fact-sheet-white-h... >release, the plan could potentially save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year for as many as 9 million community college students.

The proposal sets out several requirements for eligible students, mandating that those receiving the free tuition maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend college at least part-time. It also calls for strengthening services in community colleges by requiring them to offer vocational training and allow their credits to be transferrable to local public four-year universities.

“There are no free rides in America,” the president said in his remarks. “You would have to earn it.”

Under the proposal, federal funding will cover 75 percent of the community college tuition, while the remaining funds would be raised through participating states. The White House told reporters Friday the proposal would cost $60 billion over 10 years.

Jill Biden, second lady of the United States, also spoke at Pellissippi State about her career as an educator at various community colleges in Delaware and Virginia.

She discussed her research into the benefits of a community college education, especially those that help train students for the skills they need to find a job.

“We all reap the benefits when our citizens are well educated and well-trained,” Biden said.

According to the Community College Research Center, 45 percent of all undergraduate students attended community colleges in 2012, or an estimated 7.7 million students. The study also showed 44 percent of low-income students attended community college as their first institution of higher education after high school.

Minorities also tend to enroll in community colleges at slightly higher rates, as 50 percent of all Hispanic students and 31 percent of African American students attend a community college after high school, compared to 28 percent of white students.

About 25 percent of community college students transfer to four-year colleges or universities.

During his speech, Obama said some of the benefits of community colleges include their locality and flexibility to allow people to work or raise children while studying. He noted the diversity of Americans who would benefit from a community college education, including veterans, senior citizens and parents.

“Access to education after high school is critical for your generation,” Vice President Joe Biden said prior to the president’s speech.

The president named the proposal “America’s College Promise,” piggybacking on the Tennessee Promise started in the state by Republican Governor Bill Haslam.

The Tennessee Promise is gives graduating high school seniors two years of free tuition at a community or technical college. It is funded by a statewide endowment and lottery reserves.

“Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it – because in America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” Obama said.

In an interview Friday, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said it is too early to know the impact the plan would have on the University. He said the plan has not passed into legislation yet and noted the process could result in changes from Obama’s initial proposal.

“We have to see what actually, finally would get adopted and what that detail would be to know what it might mean,” Fitzgerald said.

Jeanne M. Nicol, director of public relations at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., said the college is unable to provide feedback on the potential impact without a specific proposal in place.

Fitzgerald did mention that the University does have a transfer agreement in place with some local community colleges for students who wish to transfer after completing some community college. However, he said community college transfers do not make up a large portion of the student body, and that most students who come to the University enroll for the “four-year experience.”

Though Fitzgerald said he could see how making community colleges more accessible might have an impact on low-income transfer students, he added that because community college transfer students make up only a small number of the total student population, it might not have a great of an impact overall.

University enrollment data from the Office of the Registrar provides the number of transfers the school receives each year, but does not break down which schools from which the transfer students come.

Though the proposal has not been presented to Congress yet, critics have already voiced concerns.

Debbie Cochrane, research director for the Institute for College Access & Success, wrote that free tuition fails to cover other costs of college, including textbooks, transportation and living expenses.

“Free tuition proposals are politically popular, but regressive and inefficient,” Cochrane wrote.

Though Obama said in his remarks that “opening the doors of higher education” should not be a partisan issue, many analysts doubt the proposal could pass Republican-led Congress.

“With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” Cory Fritz, spokesman for Speaker of the House John Boehner, said in a interview with Reuters.