Obama Pushes Plan for Free Community College

Obama Pushes Plan for Free Community College
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President Obama on Friday will propose a federal-state cost-share program that he asserts would make two years of community college "free" for qualified students nationwide, with a potential price tag of tens of billions of dollars.

Borrowing from a year-old experiment in Tennessee under the leadership of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, the president will propose that Congress agree to let the federal government partner with participating states to cover the costs of at least two years of community college credits that could transfer to four-year colleges and universities, or for qualified technical education linked to employment.

Heralding the economic transformation brought about by public high school benchmarks set a century ago, Obama will argue that national education expanded to 14 years of public benefits would offer 21st century students a valuable leg up in a competitive economy and tap a community college structure unique to the United States.

The president believes two years of publicly funded post-high-school education for students of any age is a “bold” solution, his advisers told reporters.

The administration will propose a 75/25 percent tuition cost-share with states, with some strings attached. The president’s redefinition of publicly supported education could benefit an estimated 9 million students who are expected to enroll in the nation’s more than 1,100 community colleges in the near term, according to the White House.

“A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year,” the White House explained in a sentence ripe with qualifiers. 

According to the Community College Research Center, 7.7 million students enrolled either part-time or full-time in community colleges in 2012-2013.

Obama will tout his proposal to an audience at Tennessee’s Pellissippi State Community College during a preview of his Jan. 20 State of the Union speech. Vice President Biden, whose wife, Jill Biden, teaches at a Virginia community college, will travel with him.

In a muscular appeal to high school and college students who often get their news via social media, the president recorded a tease of his announcement while flying on Air Force One. The White House unveiled the video Thursday evening via Facebook, Twitter and on the White House website minutes before national reporters could gather the details.

The Obama administration is the first to make a video recording aboard Air Force One and release it via social media to unveil a policy proposal. In previous administrations, White House photographers occasionally released still photographs taken in the plane’s presidential suite.

For the initiative, the president is borrowing heavily from the “Tennessee Promise” program, the brainchild of a conservative governor and funded using state lottery revenues.

“It’s not a partisan proposal,” White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz said during a conference call with journalists.

White House and Department of Education officials underscored the accessibility and financial appeal of community colleges, and said Congress would be more apt to embrace a new partnership if more states and cities follow the examples set by Tennessee and announced this week by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s first White House chief of staff after serving in the House.

The mayor, who has been criticized at home for closing 50 schools in Obama’s adopted hometown, is seeking re-election.

Administration officials said proposed funding sources for Obama’s “America’s College Promise” plan will be detailed in his fiscal 2016 budget submission to Congress on Feb. 2; they refused multiple requests from reporters to describe how the president would offset the projected annual and 10-year federal price tag.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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