President Obama on Friday will propose making community college tuition-free for “responsible students,” launching what officials described as an ambitious plan for the federal and state governments to widen access to higher education.
Under a program dubbed America’s College Promise, administration officials said, an estimated 9 million students a year nationwide could benefit. The average tuition savings for a full-time student at a public two-year college was estimated to be $3,800 a year.
Obama’s goal, said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House’s domestic policy director, is “to make two years of college the norm — the way high school is the norm.”
Muñoz and Ted Mitchell, undersecretary of education, discussed the plan Thursday evening in a conference call with reporters, saying it would be included in Obama’s State of the Union address and his budget.
The officials declined to provide an estimate of the cost to the federal government, but they said states would be expected to share about a quarter of the overall expense.
In scale, the proposal’s cost appeared likely to range into tens of billions of dollars over a decade. New federal spending, especially of this magnitude, are likely to face stiff resistance by the Republican-controlled Congress.
“Nothing this large has ever been proposed at the federal level for community colleges,” said David S. Baime, a senior vice president at the American Association of Community Colleges. “It’s a staggering sum of money. It’s a very bold proposal that targets federal investment in the right students at the right institutions.”
The nation’s 1,100 community colleges are the most affordable sector of higher education, with tuition and fees for full-time, in-state students typically less than the maximum federal Pell Grant award of $5,730 a year. Those grants help students in financial need. But there are often other expenses — including housing, books and transportation — that can make the total annual cost far higher.
Under the White House’s plan, students would be eligible for free tuition if they attend at least half-time, maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and make steady progress.
Community colleges would be expected to offer high-quality programs, with credits transferrable to four-year colleges. Participating states would share the cost and commit to various steps to improve educational systems.
Obama will unveil the idea Friday in a trip to Knoxville, Tenn. There, he will call attention to an access program enacted last year under Gov. Bill Haslam (R). Using state lottery funds, the Tennessee Promise offers to cover whatever tuition bills at community colleges can’t be paid through other public grants.
The program, estimated to cost $14 million in its first year, will take effect for qualified students who start at one of Tennessee’s 13 community colleges in the fall. Mike Krause, its executive director, said interest among high school seniors is huge: More than 57,000 have applied for the program.
Krause added that that might translate to between 12,000 and 16,000 participants by the fall. Of those, he said, at least a few thousand might otherwise not have considered attending college.
“The catalyzing effect” of the lure of free tuition, he said, “is extremely important.”