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Obama proposes publicly funded community colleges for all
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KNOXVILLE (AP) — President Barack Obama on Friday proposed to bring the cost of two years of community college “down to zero” for all Americans, an ambitious nationwide plan based on a popular Tennessee program signed into law by that state’s Republican governor.
However, the idea and its $60 billion federal price tag over 10 years would have to make the grade with a Republican Congress that is showing little appetite for big new spending programs. Obama, who plans to push the issue in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, argued that providing educational opportunity and creating a more skilled U.S. workforce shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” he said in a speech at Pellissippi State Community College. He said a high school diploma is no longer enough for American workers to compete in the global economy and a college degree is “the surest ticket to the middle class.”
The White House estimates 9 million students could eventually participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year if they attend fulltime. Students would qualify if they attend at least halftime, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program. Participating schools would have to meet certain academic requirements.
The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program — a cost of $20 billion over 10 years. Spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama will propose new programs to pay for the federal portion in his budget next month.
Obama is calling the idea America’s College Promise, modeled after Tennessee Promise, which Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law last year to provide free community and technical college tuition for two years. It has drawn 58,000 applicants, almost 90 percent of the state’s high school seniors. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, has a similar program for students in his city.
“If a state with Republican leadership is doing this and a city with Democratic leadership is doing this, how about we all do it,” Obama said.
Obama brought Tennessee’s two Republican senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, with him on Air Force One for the event. But both said they thought states, not the federal government, should follow Tennessee’s lead.
“Creating a federal program to me is not the way to get good things to happen in education,” Corker told reporters from his seat in the third row of the speech. “You’re always better off letting states mimic each other.”
Alexander, a former education secretary who is set to take over the Senate committee that oversees education, said Washington’s role should be to reduce paperwork for student aid applications.
Obama said he agrees and wants to see that happen this year.