Obama to propose free community college

Source: By Justin Sink, The Hill.com • Posted: Friday, January 9, 2015

President Obama will unveil a new proposal to make the first two years of community college free for students during an event Friday in Tennessee previewing his State of the Union address.

But White House officials aren’t saying how much the program — which one aide described as “significant” in scope — will cost. Nor has the administration shared details of the initiative with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who would be necessary to approve the estimated billions of dollars necessary to provide free tuition.

Still, aides cast the proposal as a bold effort to refocus attention on the nation’s higher education system, and said even if the program wasn’t fully realized, it could spur additional, badly-needed investment in the community college system.White House Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Munoz noted that after the president’s unrealized call in a previous State of the Union address for Congress to provide universal pre-K to low and moderate income families, some 30 states moved to expand access.

“This is a proposal with bipartisan appeal,” Munoz said. “Making sure students have access to higher education and the skills that they need is not a partisan proposal.”

According to the White House, an estimated nine million students could benefit from the program if all states decide to participate. The program is designed to replicate similar efforts underway in Tennessee and Chicago. Full-time students would save an average of $3,800 per year.

“Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everyone who’s willing to work for it,” Obama said in a video posted to Facebook.

But officials also stressed that the president’s plan would “require everyone to do their part.”

Students would need to attend school at least half-time to qualify, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and “make steady progress toward completing their program.”

Community colleges also will need to strengthen their academic requirements and increase the number of students who graduate to participate. And only programs that either lead to a four-year college degree or provide occupational training skills would qualify.

Under the proposal, federal funding would cover three-quarters of the average cost and states would be expected to contribute the remaining funds.

Aides said the full funding details, as well as pay-fors, would be included in the president’s budget, which is set for release early next month.

“It’s a significant proposal,” Munoz said. “States will have to take the initiative to pick it up so it’s not something we expect to happen overnight.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest hinted earlier Thursday that the president could hope to achieve some aspects of the proposal unilaterally – while conceding Congress would be necessary for the bulk of the proposal.

“I think there will be an allusion to some executive actions that are possible, but what the President has in mind tomorrow will be some steps that we can take with Congress,” Earnest said.

Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), dismissed the proposal Thursday, saying, “with no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan.”

Separately, Obama is also expected to propose a new training fund that would provide additional grant dollars for technical training programs. The fund would underwrite the start-up of 100 centers for teaching workers the skills they need to secure jobs in high-growth fields like energy, IT, and advanced manufacturing.

And Obama will announce the establishment of a new manufacturing hub at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville designed to create new materials lighter and stronger than steel. The new materials could be used to lighten cars and trucks — increasing their fuel efficiency — or to create bigger wind turbines.

The Obama Administration has help fund a half-dozen of the hubs, public-private partnerships that seek to bring together private companies, universities, and federally-backed researchers in a bid to spur job creation. The president has asked for funding to create 45 such institutes — based on similar public-private partnerships in Germany — in previous State of the Union addresses.