Obama’s “Free Community College” Initiative

It may not get much initial attention because of competing news, but yesterday the White House provided a “sneak preview” of a proposal that will be fully unveiled in the State of the Union Address, aimed at making a two-year community college education essentially tuition-free, at least in states willing to meet what amounts to a three-to-one federal “challenge grant.” It’s not a new idea; President Clinton heavily advertised his Hope Scholarship Tax Credit as aimed at making community college affordable for most Americans. And it would seem the White House is seeking to obtain a bipartisan glow for its initiative by identifying it with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise” plan for abolishing tuition for Tennessee high school graduates at community colleges and technical schools.

At College Guide today, Robert Kelchen has already published a quick reaction to Obama’s proposal, listing various pros and cons. The former include the potential for broadening political support for more robust funding for higher education, and a strong encouragement for students to switch from expensive (and sometimes ineffective) for-profit schools to public institutions. The latter mostly revolve around the inadequacy of the plan in covering actual higher ed costs, and the probability that it would be more efficient simply to spend the new federal dollars on Pell Grants.

As Kelchen notes, there’s a lot about the proposal we don’t know yet, but we’ll keep you informed on the debate as it develops.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.