Is Obama’s Education Proposal a Game Changer?

By Bill Leonard Jan 23, 2015
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Nearly two weeks before delivering his 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed a new initiative that would allow U.S. students to attend two years of community college tuition-free. He announced the idea on Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn., and then re-emphasized the proposal during his annual address to Congress on Jan. 20.

The president said he hopes to see the free-tuition initiative spread “all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

The president’s proposal received a mixed reaction, with some education leaders offering praise while Republican leaders in Congress wondered how the federal government would pay for such an initiative.

​“President Obama has presented an extremely bold proposal, a potential game changer that could encourage millions more students to consider, apply and enroll in postsecondary education,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

The president’s proposal is modeled on initiatives in Tennessee and Chicago. The idea of launching a free-tuition program nationwide has grabbed headlines and made the leaders of community colleges hopeful that it could benefit and strengthen their institutions.

“Community college leaders across the country have been galvanized by President Obama’s announcement,” said Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. “We fully recognize that there are significant political and policy issues to be fleshed out as Congress deliberates this proposal. However, the bottom line for us is that it would make community college dramatically more accessible, and that is absolutely a good thing for America.”

The White House has released a fact sheet outlining how the president’s community college proposal would work and what it would cost. If enacted, the proposal would make the first two years of community college free to all students who enroll for at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

White House officials claim the plan would benefit approximately 9 million students per year by saving them each an average of $3,800 in tuition costs.

Chief among the proposal’s critics is Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee. Alexander said that mechanisms already exist for the federal government to pay for students’ community college tuition—through federal Pell grants.

“The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done. Then, instead of creating a new federal program, the federal government can help in two ways,” Alexander said in a written statement.

The first step, according to Alexander, would be to reduce paperwork for the federal student aid application form. Alexander claimed that the 108-question form “discourages 2 million Americans from applying for federal Pell grants that are already available to help pay community college tuition.” The second step, Alexander said, would be for the federal government to pay for the millions of new Pell grants that will be awarded if other states start emulating the Tennessee program.

He added that the free-tuition plan worked in Tennessee because nearly 60 percent of the students entering the program had already been awarded Pell grants, which average $3,300

“The state then pays the difference, or $500 on average,” Alexander said. “Nationally, in 16 states, the average Pell grant pays for the typical student’s entire community college tuition.”

Other critics also wondered if the program could weaken community college systems if states reallocate funds from supporting educational programs to funding student tuitions.

Obama’s community college proposal faces a tough uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Congress, as GOP leaders look for ways to move forward their party’s agenda—and not the president’s—in 2015.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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