Obama's Free Community College Idea May Be Hard Sell

PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 19, 2014. PlayAP
WATCH Obama to Propose Plan for 2 Years of Free Community College

Free community college for all.

Conversation-starter? Definitely. Political possibility? Not any time soon.

President Obama unveiled the idea in a video posted to Facebook on Thursday night, then pitched it publicly at an event Friday in Knoxville, Tenn.

"Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it," Obama told a crowd at Pellissippi State Community College. "It's not a blank check, not a free lunch, but for those willing to do the work…it can be a game changer."

The president called a community college education one of the "central pathways to the middle class."

While certainly ambitious, the idea currently lacks a total price tag, proposed legislation, and Republican support on Capitol Hill.

But the White House says that’s beside the point at this stage.

The president merely hopes “to start a conversation,” Obama domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz told reporters.

The administration said the plan would cost the federal government an estimated $60 billion over 10 years, in addition to tens of billions of dollars in commitments from the states. The Republican Congress would need to pass legislation approving funding. State governments would need to each act as well.

Details on how the Obama envisions covering the federal cost remain a mystery.

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The White House likens the concept to its universal pre-K proposal from State of the Union two years ago; that one has languished on the Hill but does have some bipartisan support.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner reacted to the community college proposal with skepticism. “With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” Cory Fritz said in a statement.

In the audience for Obama's event in Knoxville, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said he opposes the president's plan, even though his state has pioneered a similar program on a local level.

“You’re always better off letting states mimic each other," Corker said, rejecting a federally-led effort.

Still, the notion "free" community college is tantalizing to many. Democrats envision a system akin to free the nation’s public high school system which is funded jointly by state and federal governments.

Broadly, the White House sketches it out this way:

  • 2 years free community college for students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and remain enrolled.
  • Community colleges would have to allow students to transfer to four-year schools and/or train in high-demand occupational areas.
  • Federal funding would pay for 3/4th; states would pay 1/4th.
  • The White House projects up to 9 million students could benefit if every state participates. Average savings $3800 in tuition per year.
  • “What I’d like to do is see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it,” Obama says in the Facebook video. “That’s something we can accomplish and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody around the world.”

    There’s also the issue of capacity. The nation currently only has 1,100 community colleges. Some states that have individually dabbled in subsidized or free community college programs have seen their systems overwhelmed.

    As for the politics of it – White House points to red state Tennessee and Gov. Bill Haslam who pioneered a statewide program that provides free community college tuition for two years, signed into law last year. Some 57,000 students – or 90 percent of the state’s high school graduating class – applied, signaling high demand.

    "This shouldn't be a Republican issue or a Democratic issue," Obama said in Knoxville. "It's an American issue."

    This post has been updated to reflect a cost estimate provided by the White House and Obama's remarks in Tennessee.