This is Why Obama Wants to Offer Americans 2 Free Years of College

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Cash-strapped millennials may be the ones most encouraged by President Barack Obama’s latest proposal. The president wants to offer two free years of community college to responsible students.

The offer is particularly significant as sky-rocketing tuition costs have been a factor in people’s education decisions — whether preventing them from attending college or leaving them stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. Obama’s proposal amounts to a cost of $60 billion over 10 years. Obama called education the “key to success for our kids in the 21st century” in a video previewing his proposal.

Loan debt crushing students

Students are in dire need of financial relief when it comes to higher education. Student loan debt has become exceedingly common as tuition has risen faster than inflation. The total amount of debt adds up to more than $1 trillion and rising, as more and more people carry that debt into retirement. The White House points out in its fact sheet about the new proposal the other programs Obama has worked with to make college more accessible. He increased the maximum Pell Grant award by $1,000, created the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit, and made more than $2 billion in grants available to connect community colleges with employers.

But is community college the place where this new aid is most needed? Community college is already a lower cost than the average four-year, public school. According to the College Board, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was $3,347 in the 2014-2015 school year, while it was $9,139 at public four-year universities and $31,231 at private colleges. David Bergeron, vice president at the Center for American Progress, said to Bloomberg that the proposal would help 63% of those students who don’t qualify for a Pell grant. “Eliminating this barrier will ensure that more students go to college,” he said. “This sends a very simple message to everyone who graduates from high school. They can go to college for free.”

How Obama’s proposed plan works

In his video address prior to the announcement in Tennessee, Obama said that the proposal would make the first two years of community college free to those who were willing to work for it. But what did he mean by “work for it”? According to the White House’s official fact sheet regarding the new proposal, there will be a few requirements for students participating in this plan.

To be eligible, a student must be attending community college at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA. Eligible community colleges would offer programs that are either academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year schools, or “occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates.” Community colleges also have to show proof that they’ve made institutional reforms to improve graduation rates. The White House writes that federal funding will “cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college,” and participating states will be “expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.”

Whether states would be willing to opt in and take on that payment is debatable, though Tennessee, where Obama chose to announce this plan, already offers two free years at community college or a technical school. Obama’s proposal is modeled after the Tennessee Promise, created by Tennessee governor Bill Haslam (R). Critics of the plan suggest such education measures shouldn’t come from the federal level. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he did not think a new federal program was the way to go. “You’re always better off letting states mimic each other,” Corker told reporters before the president spoke, according to The New York Times.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) was also critical of Obama’s proposal, but rather because of the flaws he sees in Tennessee’s initiative, which he believes helps more affluent and lower-achieving students instead of those who really need the money and already make can make the grades. “He shouldn’t be holding Tennessee Promise out as a model because it’s not a model; it’s a facade to cover up what is a dying system that hasn’t been funded,” said Cohen, who supports Tennessee’s HOPE college program, which offers scholarships to high-achieving students.

According to the White House, if all the states were to implement this proposal, it would save each full-time community college student $3,800 in tuition per year on average and benefit roughly 9 million students each year.

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