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What's the deal with the President's community college initiative?

We break down what we know so far about the proposal

What's the deal with the President's community college initiative?

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama expanded on an initiative that would provide free tuition for students attending a community college.

“Too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need,” said the President. “I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”

Why is it being proposed?

The President’s goal for 2020 is for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world with community colleges producing 5 million graduates of their own. “America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we made high school the norm,” Obama said, implying that the plan would make a two-year degree a norm as well.

Obama said two in three jobs will require some higher education by the end of this decade. The initiative’s goal is to produce qualified job candidates with two free years of community college. It would give up to 9 million students a chance to graduate without debt.

How would it work?

In order to receive free tuition, the student would have to be enrolled at least halftime, maintain a 2.5 GPA and be making progress toward completing his or her degree. “You’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time,” the President explained.

Is it possible?

A similar plan is already in place statewide in Tennessee and in Chicago.  According to Obama, both are showing that free community college education is possible. In Tennessee, 90 percent of the state’s high school seniors are signed up for the program.

It’s estimated that this would cost $60 million over 10 years. The federal government covering around 75 percent of the cost, while the states cover the remaining amount.

Facing opposition

Free community college needs approval from Congress before it can begin. The high price has already been leading to debate among lawmakers. Some opponents suggest that this plan is too expensive or, according to Speaker of the House John Boehner, he feels that Obama’s initiative is not specific enough.

The proposal is aimed at all students looking to attend community college, including low, middle and high income. Those against the plan say this is what makes it so expensive; middle-to-high income students can arguably afford to pay for themselves, but instead will automatically be getting government assistance.

In support

But for those on the other side of the issue, they insist that the free community college initiative would bring good to the country. By including all three income classes, many believe it would strengthen the community college system. According to Libby Nelson, an education reporter for “Vox,” if community colleges were to draw a healthier economic mix of students, they might command a more equitable share of state resources.

Since there is so much economic divide in the community college system today, people tend to look away from them as a viable post-grad option. Free tuition would allow community colleges to become better for every income bracket. Proponents for the initiative believe it would transform community colleges back into the engines of social mobility they were originally intended to be.

After hearing Obama’s plan, actor Tom Hanks wrote an op-ed for The New York Times backing the President’s proposal. Hanks attended Chabot Community College in Hayward, California for two years in the mid-1970s. As he explained in the article, many of the things he learned have stuck with him and some have even influenced his works. “That place made me what I am today,” Hanks said.


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