Obama proposes publicly funded community college for all

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants publicly funded community college available to all Americans, a sweeping proposal he argues would strengthen the U.S. workforce. The initiative’s price tag has yet to be revealed, and it faces a spending-averse Republican Congress.

The White House said Obama wants to make higher education as free and universal as high school by covering enough tuition to get students who keep their grades up an associate’s degree or halfway to a bachelor’s.

“Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it,” Obama said a video posted Thursday evening on Facebook. He spoke seated on the front of his desk from his office aboard Air Force One, in the midst of a three-day tour to preview the agenda he’ll be outlining Jan. 20 in the State of the Union address.

He planned to be joined Friday by Vice President Joe Biden at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, to promote the college plan.

Administration officials on a conference call with reporters Thursday evening said the funding details would come out later with the president’s budget. They estimated 9 million students could participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. That suggests an annual cost in the tens of billions of dollars.

The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program.

The idea got a chilly response from House Speaker John Boehner’s office. “With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” said spokesman Cory Fritz.

The idea was reminiscent of Obama’s 2013 State of the Union proposal to provide universal preschool, which Congress did not take up because of cost issues. Obama policy adviser Cecilia Munoz pointed out that even without federal action, many states are taking up the idea and expanding preschool.

And she pointed out that a Republican — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam — last year signed into law a pioneering scholarship program that provides free community and technical college tuition for two years. Munoz said Obama’s proposal was inspired by the Tennessee plan and another similar program in Chicago.

Tennessee Republican Rep. Diane Black said her state’s plan, called Tennessee Promise, is paid mostly with lottery funds, while the federal funding source for Obama’s plan is unclear and states will have to help pick up the tab. “Ultimately, any efforts to reboot Tennessee Promise as a one-size-fits-all nationwide approach will be met with heavy skepticism from Congress,” Black said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is set to take over the Senate committee that oversees education, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he planned to join Obama Friday aboard Air Force One, along with fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker.

Under Obama’s proposal, students would qualify if they attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program. Participating schools would have to meet certain academic requirements.

David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, called the plan an “extraordinary” investment. He said the essence of the proposal is to reduce the cost of attending community college and “that is a concept that we heartily endorse.”

Obama and Biden also planned to visit a manufacturing facility, Techmer PM in Clinton, Tennessee, to promote a second proposal to create a fund to help low-wage workers with high potential get training in growing fields like energy, information technology and advanced manufacturing.

NEDRA PICKLER, Associated Press

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