President Obama has been discussing a plan that would make two years of community college free for all American citizens who are “willing to work for it.” The President has been speaking about the idea this week in Tennessee, a state that has been leading the push for free higher education in America. The state recently launched its Tennessee Promise program, which uses $110 million in lottery reserve money as well as $47 million from the state General Assembly to fund two years of community college for students of any income level. The Obama administration has proposed a similar plan at the federal level.
The President’s plan, like many of his initiatives, is designed to rebuild the middle class. Tuition has become out of reach at many community colleges, even for middle-income students and families. A post-secondary education, however, is increasingly essential for skilled jobs. Unless higher education on its own receives a drastic overhaul and society sees a renewed emphasis on trade schools or an increased acceptance of high school diplomas for certain careers, college education will be necessary for those looking to obtain middle-class jobs. Obama’s plan is an attempt to stop the growing income gap from affecting who can afford college and, subsequently, who can obtain middle class jobs. “For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class,” President Obama said during a speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. “I want to make it free."
As was the case with Obamacare, the President’s initiative is likely to receive blowback from critics and lawmakers who won’t want federal money to be allocated towards higher education. Bloomberg reports that the plan calls for $60 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years to be factored into Obama’s forthcoming 2016 budget proposal. States would be expected to cover about a quarter of the associated costs. The government already issues financial aid for low-income students, and the Republican-dominated Congress is unlikely approve an initiative that expands those benefits to students of all income levels. According to Time, the average community college charges about $3,350 per year in tuition and fees. If college fees are redistributed to higher-income students, the plan essentially fails.
The critiques against federal funding for community college do have some merit, especially considering there are emerging private alternatives to traditional college. Programming bootcamps have strong success rates of landing students entry-level web development jobs, charging tuition either upfront or by taking a percentage of a student’s starting salary. The Starbucks College Achievement Plan is a way to get people working while they earn a degree for free. Free college courses are easy to find online. These are just a few specific examples, but they demonstrate how the problems of employment and higher education are being worked out in the private sector.
Another common thread between Obamacare and the free community college proposal is the fact that the United States is so far behind the times compared to other developed, wealthy nations. Countries like Sweden and Germany are the primary examples of countries successfully offering free higher education for all students, and it’s almost embarrassing that the United States is not on the lengthy list of countries with free or nearly free college education. Equal access to education, like equal access to health care, is viewed by many as an inherent right for citizens. Once again, the Obama administration is calling for America to catch up to the rest of the world. Of course, the funding needs to come from somewhere, and unless Tennessee’s program proves highly successful, it’s unlikely that it will be applied at the federal level.
Image Source: Inside Higher Ed