Friday, January 09, 2015


By Allie Grasgreen | Politico Pro |

1/8/15 6:48 PM EST / Updated 1/9/15 8:44 AM EST  ::   President Barack Obama will need the approval of Congress to realize his proposal for making two years of community college free for students.

So far, that plan doesn’t have an official price tag — other than “significant,” according to White House officials. If all 50 states participate, the proposal could benefit 9 million students each year and save students an average of $3,800 in tuition, the White House said.

But administration officials insisted on a call with reporters Thursday evening that “this is a proposal with bipartisan appeal.”

Case in point: Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, whose brainchild Tennessee Promise program strongly influenced Obama’s proposal. Beginning this year, any high school graduate in that state is eligible for two years of free community college tuition under the Tennessee Promise.

Obama, alongside Vice President Joe Biden and second lady Jill Biden, will tout his proposal dubbed “America’s College Promise” during a visit Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., on Friday.

“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 Thursday evening. “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.”

The president’s proposal would make two years of community college free for students of any age with a C+ average who attend school at least half-time and who are making “steady progress” toward their degree.

To be eligible, community colleges would have to offer academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities or training programs with high graduation rates that lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms” to improve student outcomes.

Federal funding would cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college, and Obama is asking states to pick up the rest of the tab — assuming Congress agrees to the plan in the first place.

“I hope we’ve got the chance to make sure that Congress gets behind these kinds of efforts to make sure that even as we rebound and grow in 2015, that it benefits everybody and not just some,” the president said in the video.

Obama said his online announcement was “a little preview” of his plans for the Jan. 20 State of the Union address. The cost details will be in the president’s 2016 budget proposal, White House director Cecilia Muñoz said.

Muñoz said Obama aims to make college “the norm in the same way high school is the norm now.”

The Tennessee Promise idea has, needless to say, caught on. And Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell said on Thursday’s call that he hopes Obama’s plan will encourage more states to start similar programs.

But the idea is not without critics.

The Institute for College Access and Success, which is typically in step with the Obama administration, called the proposal “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Among the problems, TICAS says, is that the more substantial costs of college — living expenses, textbooks and transportation — are typically left out of the deal.

And Bryce McKibben, a former Association of Community College Trustees policy analyst who recently became a policy adviser to Democrats on the Senate education committee, has noted potential flaws. For instance, the program could end up doing more for less needy students than those who need it the most, because low-income applicants may already be covered by Pell grants and other federal aid.

Since state appropriations plummeted during the economic recession, students and families have been forced to pay more for college. From 2008-12, public college funding in 26 states fell by 5 percent or more, according to a recent Center for American Progress report.

Advocacy groups including CAP, which has counseled the Obama administration on higher education issues, have promoted ideas to spur both federal and state funding to boost college enrollment.

“The first order of business is to make college more affordable — and by affordable, we mean basically make it free for low- and moderate-income families through federal investments and stimulating state investments,” David Bergeron, vice president of postsecondary education at CAP, told POLITICO earlier this week.

At the same time, Bergeron had some reservations about Friday’s announcement.

“I don’t want to just have our low-income and least prepared students going to community colleges,” he said, “because those community colleges are the least resourced.”

But Thomas J. Snyder, president of the massive Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, says he fully supports the idea, which he called “a game-changer.”

“We have ground to make up against other countries, and this is a big first step in doing just that,” Snyder said in an email. “It will make the goal of achieving a college degree more attainable for more Americans — whether it be a two-year degree that leads to a good-paying job or the first step toward a more affordable four-year option.”

Haslam and Sen. Lamar Alexander will both be on hand at Friday’s event. Alexander plugged the Tennessee Promise on the Senate floor Wednesday. But the newly elected Senate education committee chair also said that simplifying the federal financial aid process is “the one thing the federal government can do to give more opportunity to Americans, particularly in community colleges.”

Also Friday, Obama plans to announce the new American Technical Training Fund to “expand innovating, high-quality technical training programs across the country,” according to a White House release. The program will award programs that partner with employers and include “work-based learning opportunities,” provide accelerated training and accommodate part-time work.

The president has some limited authority to steer Department of Labor funds toward skills training that focuses on partnerships with employers and accelerated training. But a larger investment would need to be authorized by Congress, and in recent years both chambers have more or less ignored Obama’s proposals for investments in jobs-driven training, such as a 2015 budget proposal for a $1.5 billion “Community College Job-Driven Training Fund” that went nowhere.

Nirvi Shah and Maggie Severns contributed to this report.

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