Should Community College Be Free?

Attending community college is already a great way for some students to ease their student loan burdens. But President Obama unveiled a proposal Thursday that could erase that burden altogether, offering two years of free community college to students “willing to work for it.”

Obama is expected to formally announce the plan while speaking at a community college in Tennessee Friday. The plan was inspired in part by the Tennessee Promise, a state program that pays tuition (after aid and scholarships) for eligible high school seniors who attend community college. That program, spearheaded by Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, began rolling out in 2014 and has gained national attention and praise.

Under Obama’s proposal, a student could go to community college for two years and pay no tuition. But that aid wouldn’t come too easily. Students would be required to “keep their grades up” to qualify for the free tuition — this would mean maintaining a 2.5 GPA and continuing to take courses in a steady progression.

The program would be available to both traditional and non-traditional students pursuing their first two years of college – either an associate’s degree, the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, or simply further job training. The president made it a point to comment that it isn’t just for kids — that there’s a need for every American to have the ability to train themselves for better jobs, better wages, and better benefits.

In a video uploaded to Facebook on Thursday, the president goes on to say, “Put simply, what I’d like to do is see the first two years of community college free for anyone who’s willing to work for it. It’s something we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anyone in the world.”

As we’ve written, there are many good-paying jobs available to graduates with two-year degrees.

Approximately 7.7 million Americans attend community college for credit, according to data from the American Association of Community Colleges reported by the New York Times. This proposal could increase that figure — some estimate that as many as 9 million students would participate, each saving on average about $3,800 per year in tuition.

Right now, there aren’t many details on funding, but the federal government would reportedly pay for 75% of the costs, with participating states paying the remaining 25%.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters Friday that the plan would cost the government about $60 billion over 10 years. Obama is expected to reveal more details in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 20, and more details on funding should come in his budget proposal in early February.

Such an ambitious — and expensive — national undertaking is sure to generate debate and resistance in Washington, and Obama would need Republican support to get the plan passed in Congress.

If you want to hear the news yourself, check out the video the White House uploaded to Facebook.