What We Know About Obama’s Plan to Make Community College Free

Students can’t rejoice just yet—the proposal faces potential hurdles from states and Congress.

President Obama speaks on new proposals for higher education accessibility at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Jan. 9. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

Jan 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

President Barack Obama formally announced on Friday in Knoxville, Tennessee, a proposal to make community college free. The president is expected to detail the program in his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, but here’s what we know so far.

To qualify, students must attend a public community college at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA. They have to make progress toward a two-year degree or earn half the credits required for a four-year degree. Federal funding will cover 75 percent of the cost of tuition. States will pay the rest, if they choose to take part.

Besides funding, participating states will be expected to reduce remediation and course repetition among students. Provisions also include working to allocate “a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone,” reads a statement from the White House.

The plan will follow the model of Tennessee Promise, the president said in his speech on Friday at Pellissippi State Community College. The initiative, enacted under Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, made the state’s community colleges free. Skeptics of Obama’s proposal have pointed out that results of the Tennessee Promise are yet to be seen, since the first beneficiaries won’t enroll until next school year. The Washington Post also questioned whether community colleges—already attended by nearly 40 percent of undergraduates—have the capacity to accept more students. In Tennessee, almost 90 percent of the state’s high school graduating class applied for the state program.

Another big question is whether the proposal, which will be included in the president’s budget for the coming year, will make it through the House of Representatives and the Senate, both led by Republicans.

“With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” Cory Fritz, a spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement.

It’s a tall order, but if it gains approval from Congress and all 50 states choose to participate, it could benefit about nine million students a year and save an average full-time community college student $3,800 annually.

“America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we made high school the norm, and then we sent a generation to college on the G.I. bill,” Obama said in Tennessee. “We understood that this is a hallmark of America, investment in education. But eventually the world caught up, and that’s why we need to lead in education again.”