Obama Plan Would Help Many Go to Community
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and TAMAR LEWIN
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday that he would propose a
government program to make community college tuitionfree for millions of students,
an ambitious plan that would expand educational opportunities across the United States.
The initiative, which the president plans to officially announce Friday at a
Tennessee community college, aims to transform publicly financed higher education in
an effort to address growing income inequality.
The plan would be funded by the federal government and participating states, but
White House officials declined to discuss how much it would cost or how it would be
financed. It is bound to be expensive and likely a tough sell to a Republican Congress
not eager to spend money, especially on a proposal from the White House.
“With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point
than a plan,” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner,
Republican of Ohio.
Mr. Obama’s advisers acknowledged Thursday that the program’s goals would not
be achieved quickly. The president, however, was more upbeat. “It’s something that we
can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our work force so that we can
compete with anybody in the world,” Mr. Obama said in a video posted Thursday night
by the White House.
The proposal would cover halftime and fulltime students who maintain a 2.5
grade point average — about a Cplus — and who “make steady progress toward
completing a program,” White House officials said. It would apply to colleges that
offered credit toward a fouryear degree or occupationaltraining programs that award
degrees in highdemand fields. The federal government would cover threequarters of
the average cost of community college for those students, and states that choose to
participate would cover the remainder. If all states participate, the administration
estimates, the program could cover as many as nine million students, saving them each
an average of $3,800 a year.
Mr. Obama will include the program, which would need congressional approval, in
his budget for the coming year, his advisers said, and detail it in his State of the Union
address Jan. 20.
The plan is modeled after Tennessee’s free community college program, called the
Tennessee Promise, which will be available to students graduating high school this year.
It has drawn 58,000 applicants, almost 90 percent of the state’s high school seniors, and
more than twice as many as expected.
The program has gone a long way toward making community college attainable for
all students. In addition, the proportion of applicants who are AfricanAmerican and
Hispanic is higher than their proportion currently enrolled in Tennessee colleges. The
program is backed by the state’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, and largely
financed from lottery funds.
Still, Tennessee Promise has been criticized by some who say it is structured to
benefit middleincome students more than the neediest.
It is designed as a “last dollar” scholarship, paying only for tuition costs not
covered by other programs. A lowincome student who is eligible for a maximum Pell
Grant of $5,730 would not receive assistance under the Tennessee program, because that
amount would already cover tuition. A more affluent student, however, could get full
tuition paid by the program.
Mr. Obama’s plan, by contrast, would cover tuition costs up front, White House
Representative Diane Black, Republican of Tennessee, said despite the success of
her state’s program, she was skeptical of the Obama initiative, calling it “a topdown
federal program that will ask already cashstrapped states to help pick up the tab.”
Chicago, too, has a new free community college initiative starting this year. The
program initiated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, will give Chicago Public
School students who graduate with at least a 3.0 gradepoint average waivers to cover
tuition, books and fees at the city’s seven community colleges.
White House officials acknowledged in a conference call with reporters that the
program was unlikely to win quick approval in Congress. Still, they said, in proposing
it, Mr. Obama was seeking to press states and community colleges to beef up their
investments in highquality education in ways that would have a lasting effect even
before federal legislation was enacted.
“We don’t expect the country to be transformed overnight, but we do expect this
conversation to begin tomorrow,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the president’s domestic policy
About 7.7 million Americans attend community college for credit, of whom 3.1
million attend full time, according to the American Association of Community
Colleges, relying on 2012 data. Over all, the federal government provides about $9.1
billion to community colleges, or about 16 percent of the total revenue the colleges
receive. Tuition from students provides $16.7 billion a year, or nearly 30 percent of
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former education secretary, will attend
the announcement at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., on
In an oped published on Thursday, he expressed concern about the federal role in
such a program. Tennessee has been hindered by federal bureaucracy, he wrote in The
Knoxville News Sentinel. “Let other states emulate Tennessee’s really good idea,” he
Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported from Washington, and Tamar Lewin from New York. Peter
Baker contributed reporting from Washington.