KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — President Obama traveled here Friday to make his first full-fledged pitch for tuition-free community college, as White House officials confirmed that the ambitious proposal would cost about $60 billion over the next decade.
Speaking to a crowd of students and faculty at Pellissippi State Community College, Obama presented his plan as an economic imperative. But he also said it was based on responsibility — of individual students, of colleges and of states in boosting their spending on higher education.
“This isn’t a blank check. It’s not a free lunch,” Obama said. “But for those who are willing to do the work, and states that want to be a part of this, it can be a game-changer.”
Perhaps the most important player in the short run, though, will be Congress, which needs to approve the proposal. White House officials said the program would cost $60 billion over 10 years.
Obama’s trip to Pellissippi, which is on the western outskirts of Knoxville, comes as part of a several-state tour to preview the themes of his State of the Union address later this month. During the speech he will address a Congress controlled completely by Republicans.
Some of Obama’s largest higher education accomplishments in his first term — such as boosting spending on federal Pell Grants and switching to 100 percent direct lending, ending a mix with bank-based loans — were hard-fought but approved by a Congress that likely was far friendlier to the administration’s agenda than this one will be.
The president’s trip to Tennessee appeared to reflect the new political dynamics the administration faces as it begins its final two years in office. And his visit highlighted, to some extent, the prospect that college access and affordability may be an area on which Obama can work with Congressional Republicans.
The president chose to take his community college pitch to a state that is led by a Republican Governor, Bill Haslam, who not only has been widely praised for his innovation in higher education but who has also played ball with the administration.
Haslam last year participated in the White House’s higher education summit. He has praised the U.S. Department of Education’s controversial new teacher preparation regulations. And, separately, he is negotiating with the Obama administration on a compromise Medicaid expansion for his state.
Speaking before Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who also made remarks, Haslam alluded to that bipartisanship. He said while Democrats and Republicans may disagree on how to approach income inequality, they can agree that community colleges are vital to economic growth.
In an unusual display, the state’s two Republican senators, both of whom are assuming powerful roles as committee chairmen in the new Congress, were on hand for the event.
Obama spoke in a building named after Sen. Lamar Alexander, the former education secretary and governor, who has said he’s open to working with the administration on higher education issues. For his part, Obama said he would join Alexander in seeking to simplify the federal student aid application.
“It just shouldn’t be that hard to” apply for aid, Obama said, noting that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, includes more than 100 questions.
Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker, who is now chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, were seated next to Ted Mitchell, the under secretary who oversees higher education policy at the Education Department.
Still, some Republicans, including Alexander, who chairs the Senate’s education committee, have expressed misgivings about the idea of taking national a free community college program that works at the state level.
Before the event, Alexander said in a written statement that the “right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done.”
Instead of creating a new federal program, Alexander said, Congress should simplify the paperwork involved in applying for student aid and fund “the millions of new Pell grants that will be awarded if other states emulate Tennessee Promise.”
Support from Senate Dems, Trouble for For-Profits?
Some Senate Democrats, meanwhile, rallied around the president’s proposal, which will be formally included as part of the administration’s budget request to Congress next month.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, said she backed the plan.
“Expanding access to college and making it more affordable is a ticket to the middle class for millions of students across the country,” she said in a written statement. “I look forward to working with President Obama and my colleagues to make this goal a reality.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, an outspoken critic of for-profit education, said he was pleased the president was promoting community colleges as “a more affordable, higher quality alternative to for-profit colleges.”
Many programs at for-profit colleges often compete directly with those at local community colleges. The Obama proposal is aimed both at two-year programs that are a stepping stone to bachelor’s degrees as well as at occupational training certificates.
For-profit analysts said the plan, which is aimed at expanding community college capacity nationwide, would be a negative for the for-profit sector’s revenues.
David Key, who has been a professor of history at Pellissippi State for the past 12 years, looked on from the audience as many of his students stood behind the president during his announcement.
“I think this could become a cornerstone of higher education policy, much like what the Pell Grant was in the past,” he said of the Obama plan. “If our college and our county had a small part to play in that, we’re just proud.”