On Friday, President Obama will announce a plan to make community college free for students who maintain their grades.
The program would be available for both half-time and full-time students who maintain a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) and apply to community colleges that offer occupational training in high-demand fields or credit toward a four-year degree. Tuition costs would be covered up front.
While Obama isn’t expected to discuss how much it would cost or how to fund it, the federal government would share it with states, covering three-quarters of the average cost of community college with states that participate covering the rest. The government already provides about $9.1 billion in aid to community colleges. If all states were to participate, as many as 9 million students could partake and would save an average of $3,800 a year.
Obama will announce the proposal in Tennessee, which has already launched a very similar program. State residents who graduate from high school, maintain a 2.0 GPA, attend mandatory meetings, work with a mentor, and do community service can get the costs of community college tuition that aren’t covered by other programs like Pell Grants paid for. Its program is expected to cost about $34 million a year and has already attracted 58,000 applicants, nearly 90 percent of Tennessee high school seniors and more than twice as many as expected. There’s also a higher proportion of Black and Hispanic student applicants for the program than are currently enrolled in college.
Chicago has also launched a program this year that will give students with a 3.0 GPA waivers for tuition, books, and fees at community colleges. Other states, such as Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon, are considering similar plans, while some have looked at “pay it forward” programs that allow students to attend community college or public university at no cost with the requirement that they repay a certain portion of their income after graduation.
If President Obama truly wants to transform the cost of higher education, however, he could make college free for all students without having to lay out more money to pay for it. That’s because the federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends to subsidize the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead cover tuition at all public colleges, which came to $62.6 billion in 2012, the most recent data. (The government spends another $197.4 billion on student loans.) That would give all students who want to get a college degree a free option to do so. It could also put pressure on private universities to compete with the free option by reducing their costs, which have risen 13 percent over the last five years.
Eliminating college tuition with the money spent on subsidies could also make the system more equal. Currently, the government’s tax-based aid mostly flows to wealthy families instead of low- and middle-income ones. And Pell Grants, which do go to low-income students, have been cut in recent years and cover a small percentage of the cost of college.