President Barack Obama announced on Jan. 9 a federal proposal that aims to extend two years of free tuition to all students wishing to attend community college. The president unveiled his ambitious plans for higher education in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a similar state-level policy has already come to fruition. If all 50 states participate in the program, an estimated 9 million students will benefit. Eligible candidates will include solely seniors. Socioeconomic status is not a factor for consideration; however, students must earn a minimum GPA of 2.5 to maintain their free enrollment. While this new proposal is a leap forward for the U.S. education system, concerns and amendments still remain for the proposition.

The call for universal access to higher education will ensure all students are afforded at least two years of community college without financial burden, assuming the requirements are met. Full-time community college students will save approximately $3,800 in annual tuition. Due to the climbing costs of higher education, community colleges have become increasingly focused on vocational training, as opposed to the liberal arts and sciences. With free tuition, students will have more liberty to choose majors based on passions and interests rather than practicality. A high-school degree no longer suffices for a wide range of occupations in our nation’s society. By 2020, 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, and 30 percent will require some form of college education or an associate’s degree. The anticipated influx of students students will not just prepare the youngest generation for the workforce, but also stimulate improvement in the quality of education community colleges provide.

The plan is estimated to cost $60 billion over a 10-year period. The source of subsidies is general at best, which is a cause for concern for those who fear that large expenses will further push the nation into debt. Highlighted in the proposal thus far is the following: states that choose to participate in the program will be expected to cover one-quarter of the cost, while federal funding will cover the rest. These states will have the flexibility to allocate particular resources to students in need.

With states slated to have plenty of autonomy in the process, they should be held responsible for a number of different factors. States will have the opportunity to create more early intervention and outreach programs, expand community college offerings and improve the affordability of four-year universities. States should also ensure that students in need of financial aid are guaranteed room and board, books and transportation. FAFSA, the financial aid application filled out by students across the nation, should be streamlined to conveniently process school applications and financial aid packages side-by-side. With these considerations, Obama’s proposal will surely give American students the competitive edge they need to thrive in today’s rapidly evolving economic climate.

The new plan will model after community college initiatives in Tennessee, which have shown great success. In Tennessee, 90 percent of high-school students applied to the state’s community college program in the past year, the first cycle of the program. Only 40 percent of Tennessee students were expected to apply. Furthermore, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, a participant in the program, has a graduation rate of 80 percent with 85 percent of students placed into jobs, showing the potential and demand of a national program to improve the work force.

Obama’s proposal foresees many changes not just in the education system, but also in the long-term economy. The possibility for students to receive two years of free higher education will enhance the quality of community colleges, bridge the segregation between students of various socioeconomic statuses and provide more job opportunities for generations to come.

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