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Obama’s Free Community College Proposal Could Bring Affordable Higher Education To Millions Nationwide

Students hold signs as they protest a series of tuition increases planned for the University of California while listening to speakers talk about the Dec. 2, 1964 Free Speech Movement demonstration outside of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif. on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.

CREDIT: AP/Jeff Chiu.

Last Thursday evening, President Barack Obama announced a proposal to give Americans two free years of education at community colleges. He is expected to explain the specifics of the proposal during his upcoming State of the Union address.

“What I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it,” Obama said in a White House video posted to Facebook. “It’s something we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.”

Under this proposal, students across the nation would be able to earn half of a bachelor’s degree free of charge. According to a White House press release, an average full-time student would save $3,800 tuition per year, and if all 50 states implemented Obama’s proposal, it would benefit 9 million students each year. That is, if they put in the effort to graduate on time.

In order to receive the full benefits of this plan, students must at least be enrolled half-time in community college and achieve a 2.5 minimum GPA. Community colleges must also offer credits that are easily transferable to four-year universities, occupation training programs, and adopt institutional reforms geared towards improving student success.

If Obama makes this proposal a reality, the United States will finally join Germany, which recently ceased charging tuition at all public universities, the United Kingdom, and several other European nations that already offer free education.

As with many game-changing policies, the big question regarding Obama’s educational overhaul is how it will be financed and who is picking up the tab. The White House told reporters that the federal government would pay for three quarters of the average cost of community college. The final quarter would be funded by participating states. The finer financing details will be elaborated upon in Obama’s 2015 budget proposal.

The reactions to the president’s surprise announcement are intense on all fronts. Many have taken to both traditional and new media outlets to voice their concerns and praise. CNN contributor LZ Granderson wrote that Obama’s move is a much-needed boost for lower income students that can’t keep up in the job market without a pricey degree.

“If you still think a proposal to make community college free is just a liberal handout, then you’re living in the past,” Granderson wrote. “The reality is bachelor degrees are the high school diplomas of the 21st century. And whether you like President Obama or not is irrelevant, because the skills gap that has been a drag on our economy is not go away after 2016.”

Obama’s naysayers, on the other hand, have honed in on the potential ramifications of this proposal. In an article titled “Six Reasons Why Obama’s Free Community College is a Poor Investment,” Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) wrote that free community college may cause tuition to actually increase.

“The past large expenditures for federal student financial assistance, such as the Pell Grant and student loan programs, have contributed importantly to the tuition fee explosion,” Vedder wrote. “Community colleges have been less impacted by this, but it is likely the Obama proposal would lead to a fee explosion at the two year schools.”

Obama will undoubtedly respond to his critics during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 20.

Lucy Stratton is a reporter with Generation Progress.

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