President Barack Obama is not acting like someone whose party suffered heavy defeats in the recent midterm election. Last month he previewed America’s College Promise, an ambitious plan that could help his earlier goal of increasing the number of college graduates to become a reality.
“Put simply, I’d like to see the first two years of community college be free for everyone who is willing to work for it,” Obama said in making the announcement. “It is something we can accomplish and it’s something that will train our workforce so we can compete with anyone in the word.”
To qualify, students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make steady progress toward completing their studies. Schools must offer programs with fully transferrable credits to four-year institutions. Federal funding would cover three-quarters of the cost, while states would contribute the rest.
The plan, estimated to cost $60 billion over 10 years, first has to make it through Congress. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has already noted similarities to his state’s Tennessee Promise that will use lottery money to provide two years of free tuition to state community and technical colleges.
“The right way to expand this nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done,” he said. “Instead of creating a new federal program, the federal government can help by reducing the paperwork for the student aid application which discourages two million Americans from applying for Pell grants that are already available to help pay community college tuition.”
But Debbie Cochrane of The Institute for College Access & Success says Alexander misses the point. “The White House plan differs significantly from Tennessee’s and other ‘free community college’ plans and addresses many, but not all, of those plans’ limitations,” she says.
Low-income students will benefit from the White House plan because it isn’t a “last-dollar” scholarship—like the Tennessee Promise—that only only those who don’t get enough aid to cover tuition. “Obama’s proposal is aimed squarely at stopping state divestment from public colleges, which is crucial to making college more affordable,” Cochrane says.
The plan could boost not only college participation rates, but also program completion rates, says John Levin of the California Community College Initiative at the University of California, Riverside. “The Obama graduation initiative will move forward if community college students can be relieved of economic hardships.”
However, Judah Bellin of Minding the Campus, the online magazine of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, has doubts. “Making community college free for these students will likely have little to no impact on their success,” he says. “Only about 20 percent of community college students actually transfer to four-year institutions. It’s not clear how simply making it easier for more students to attend these schools will improve outcomes.”