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Obama Aims to Send Students to Community College for Free

Earlier this week, President Obama, sitting casually on his desk aboard Air Force One, gave the nation a sneak-peek of his upcoming State of the Union address: A new higher-education initiative.

The proposal is simple: To allow 9 million students to attend 2-years of community college for free, saving them an average of $3,800. For students working minimum wage jobs (which, nationally, remains at a mere $7.25), the President’s plan has the potential to change lives and increase social mobility, an increasing problem for the American economy.

The program would also mandate that community colleges seeking eligibility ensured their credits transferred to local public universities, giving students the freedom to pursue more ambitious degrees.

However, the President has also asked states to pick up a quarter of the program’s costs. This could prove problematic, as state governments, often Republican-led and frustrated by the current administration, have historically been uncooperative with Obama’s initiatives (such as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act).

Yet Obama hopes that the proposal will reach across the aisle, as it’s modeled after the “Tennessee Promise” program, which was created by Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Tennessee Promise functions as a rewards-system, incentivizing students to do well in high school so that college becomes financially achievable.

But marketing this initiative as bipartisan might still prove difficult, as many in Congress have sworn against any bill with Obama’s nametag.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has said that the President’s “multi-billion dollar Washington rewrite of a successful Republican state education program is neither serious nor responsible—he can’t even say how he’d pay for its $60 billion price tag despite the country drowning in red ink.”

But even if his ideas are supported by the legislature, providing community college at no cost to students could potentially overwhelm the system. The program also does not address the unavoidable fact that educational inequities begin in preschool, and only widen as students progress through elementary, middle and high school. While Obama has said he hopes to make community college as “universal” as high school, some might be concerned that a consistent focus on maximizing higher-education opportunities will be at the cost of a struggling secondary school system.

But the President is surely right in his intentions. There is a undeniable correlation between income, education and unemployment. And, as the high school drop-out rate continues to decline, moving forward, it could be a good next move to put increasing focus on college attendance.

But, like all government endeavors, completely subsidizing two years of community college comes at a price. When considering the obvious educational benefit Obama’s proposal provide, we must investigate what funding mechanisms, whether taxes or spending, will finance the program.

Photo credit: Rebecca Heilweil

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