By Paul Fain
President Obama is going big with his higher education announcement in Tennessee on Friday. He wants to make the first two years of community college as free as high school.
“To make sure that community college is accessible for everybody,” Obama said in a video message released Thursday, “put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it.”
The proposal, dubbed America’s College Promise, would be a matching grant program. The federal government would pay for 75 percent of the “average cost of community college.” That means covering tuition and fees upfront, White House officials said, rather than the total price of attendance. Participating states would be required to cover the remaining tuition balance.
- An analysis of President Obama’s proposal from our blog Confessions of a Community College Dean.
- Questioning the wisdom of states making community college tuition free.
- An in-depth look at Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and his vision for free tuition at community colleges.
- Chicago’s approach to free tuition.
- National group works to promote free tuition at community colleges.
How the federal government would pay for the plan — which the White House said could affect up to 9 million students if all states participated — is a major question mark. It would save full-time community college students an average of $3,800 in tuition per year, according to the White House.
The president will introduce the full proposal, including the estimated price tag, as part of his State of the Union address later this month, said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House domestic policy director. She said it also would be part of the administration’s federal budget request for the 2016 fiscal year.
“This will take legislation to accomplish,” Muñoz said in a call Thursday with reporters. “It’s a significant proposal.”
The president tomorrow will speak in Tennessee with Sen. Lamar Alexander, the new chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, as well as other Republicans.
Obama said the plan was based in part on Tennessee’s example. Led by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, the state has signed up more than 90 percent of its roughly 60,000 high school graduates from 2013 for a new community college scholarship.
The Tennessee Promise will cover all the community college tuition and fees that federal grants do not for those students. They must enroll full-time and maintain a 2.0 GPA. The state has signed up more than 7,000 volunteers to serve as mentors to scholarship recipients, who must complete eight hours of community service.
Haslam successfully pushed for the creation of a $300 million endowment to pay for the scholarships, which an estimated 12,000 students are expected to receive this year. (Many of the other applicants will attend four-year colleges, state officials said.)
The $300 million came from a state lottery fund, with the Legislature kicking in an additional $47 million. The Tennessee Promise will cost roughly $35 million a year, at least to start, state officials have said.
The federal version would include similar eligibility rules. Students must enroll at least half-time, the White House said, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make “steady progress” toward completing their programs.
Two-year colleges in participating states would face federal requirements as well, according to the sparse outline of the plan. They would need to offer programs that either fully transfer credits to local, public four-year institutions or that classify as occupational training in high-demand fields.
“Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes,” the White House said.
The proposal immediately drew both praise and criticism. A top GOP aide in Washington, D.C., pushed back on the attempt to “federalize” a state idea.
“If Haslam and Tennessee can put this program together without additional federal support, why can’t the other states do the same thing?” the aide said. “Washington programs usually end up with a whole boatload of Washington rules, conditions and mandates and inevitably end up screwing up the original program the idea is based upon.”
In addition to Tennessee, the White House cited a new scholarship from the City Colleges of Chicago. That program, dubbed the Star Scholarship, will have stricter eligibility requirements. An estimated 3,000 of the city’s roughly 20,000 high school graduates would qualify for the scholarship, which will cost $2 million annually, city and college officials said. (Click here for more details on the Tennessee and Chicago scholarships.)
Free community college plans have been gaining political traction of late. The Campaign for Free College Tuition, a nonprofit group, is working to line up support on both sides of the aisle.
The American Council on Education’s initial response to the plan was positive. Molly Corbett Broad, who leads the higher education umbrella group, called the proposal a “potential game-changer” that could encourage millions of students to apply to college. However, she said questions remain about how the state policy would translate to the national stage.
Obama is scheduled to talk about the national community college scholarship tomorrow at Pellissippi State Community College. That institution is located outside of Knoxville, where Haslam was mayor when a precursor to the Tennessee Promise was created. Pellissippi has increased its degree production by 90 percent in the six years since then.
Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, said the president’s plan would increase enrollment at community colleges in participating states.
“This will put capacity pressure on community colleges,” he said. “We think this is a good problem to have.”
Mitchell and Muñoz said the proposal would require states to maintain higher education funding, so the federal money would not just replace state funds.
“This proposal would make two years of college the norm in the way that high school was the norm in the last century,” Muñoz said.
Some experts on the community college sector are not fans of the Tennessee Promise. They say the scholarship will fail to help the neediest students, subsidizing middle- and upper-income students instead. Others have criticized the program’s eligibility requirements and the fact that it doesn’t cover living expenses.
The Institute for College Access and Success made a similar argument on Thursday, extending that criticism to the president’s proposal. However, the consumer group on Friday released a less negative statement. It praised the White House for attempting to stop state disinvestment in community colleges and for seeking additional funding for states that make reforms, such as not charging tuition at two-year colleges.
“These are clear improvements on the plans discussed in our blog posted earlier today,” the institute said in a written statement. “Still, making tuition free for all students regardless of their income is a missed opportunity to focus resources on the students who need aid the most.”
Michael Stratford contributed to this article.