President Barack Obama’s call for free community college tuition presents plenty of potential pitfalls, but it sets the right goal: Making a college education reasonably affordable, once again, in America.
On Friday, Obama said he wants to make the first two years of college as free and universal as high school, which could make the United States more competitive by giving it a better-educated work force. Obama’s plan could help as many as 9 million students, who will be glad not to add to the nation’s staggering $1.2 trillion in student loan debt.
Obama patterned his proposal after a Tennessee plan that goes into effect when classes start next fall. But scaling that nationally won’t be easy.
Getting the plan through Congress is one big hurdle. The White House estimates the plan would cost the federal government – which would shoulder 75 percent of the cost — $60 billion over 10 years. The Republican majority on Capitol Hill probably will resist.
So, probably, will some states, who together would have to come up with the other $20 billion. If the states simply transfer funds to community colleges that they now spend on four-year colleges, that would make it harder than ever to get a four-year degree.
The community college proposal includes some safeguards. Students would be expected to maintain C+ average and make steady academic progress. Even so, some students who aren’t ready for college would no doubt get in on the deal, forcing community colleges to divert limited resources to remedial education.
And if the program is a success, it might bring to community colleges — which already educate 40 percent of undergraduates — more students than they have room for.
That said, Obama is going down the right road on this one. Congress should meet him half way. A college education is falling beyond the grasp of too many young Americans. They deserve at least the same chance their parents got.