Obama Investing in Community College Students With Hopeful Plan

Last week, President Obama announced a proposal to provide two years of free community college for students who meet certain criteria. Obama’s plan would cover up to $3,800 in tuition for half-time students that maintain a 2.5 GPA while enrolled.

Though the President will elaborate more on the plan during his State of the Union address next week, this announcement alone sparked national conversation on the idea of federal funding for community college students.

Many students and education advocates took to twitter to express their support for the proposal with the hashtag #FreeCommunityCollege which followed Obama’s video announcement on Thursday night. Some were cautiously optimistic about the plan, questioning the cost of such a large initiative. Then, of course, we had tea party fanatics claiming this to be a part of Obama’s evil socialist scheme.

All in all, the proposal to cover a significant amount of the cost for students in higher education is an excellent idea at any level, but community college is certainly the most pragmatic approach. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 7.1 million Americans attend community college for credit, the White House claims this number could increase to 9 million with Obama’s plan.

This has a fighting chance at actually working, however as many skeptics have pointed out, the cost of it is going to be a hard-sell given the currently Republican-controlled Congress. In the event that the president finds a way to implement this plan nationally, each state would have to be on board and meet their own expected percentage of the funding. Though, this could prove to be problematic if some states sign on to the plan and others don’t, a state-by-state integration of this plan might be the best shot at success.

Currently, Tennessee is implementing a plan entitled “Tennessee Promise” which provides free community college tuition to students graduating high school. The plan saw double the applicants they initially projected for the program, with a total of 90 percent of graduating seniors applying. Obama spoke about his plan in Tennessee on Friday, using this model as an example of a free community college initiative working. Under the direction of former White House chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago is also rolling out a plan to cover tuition and book costs for students attending their city colleges. The “America’s College Promise Proposal” as the White House is calling it, took these local and state initiated plans and turned it into a national conversation.

Though both of these programs are in the beginning stages and this national plan is newly conceived, it is important that federal and state governments continue to focus on plans to make higher education both more accessible and more affordable for everyone in the United States.

This plan, as far as we know now, is not perfect. We do not know whether it will be feasible and does not fully address the number issues the students in higher education face today, including loan debt, ridiculously high tuition costs, accessibility and increased privatization. However, we need to look at this as an opportunity to change the national outlook on access to higher education. The words “free education” should not make anyone shudder. It is not a new idea, it is a good idea. Yes, I realize that “free” always comes with a cost, but this is a cost that is worth paying with state taxpayer dollars and federal spending. In the coming months we will see if this “promise” can be fulfilled. Given the current state of national politics, I am not hopeful that any immediate changes will be made, but this proposal is a step toward reinvestment in public education that is long overdue in this country.

Sarah S. Menendez is a fourth-year political science and literary journalism double major. She can be reached at smenende@uci.edu.