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January 9, 2015 at 11:53 AM

Obama wants to make community college free for everyone

President Barack Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., on Friday. Photo by Mark Humphrey / AP.

President Barack Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., on Friday. Photo by Mark Humphrey / AP.

President Obama on Friday outlined a new plan that would make community college free for all students, regardless of income, as long as they make good progress toward earning a degree and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

The idea is modeled after Tennessee’s free community college program, which begins this fall. Under the proposal, the federal government would pay three-quarters of the cost of going to community college. States would pick up the rest.

“Twelve years is not enough,” said Vice-President Joe Biden during a speech in Tennessee Friday, referring to the need for most workers to get a degree beyond high school. “The world has changed. Competition has changed.”

In Washington state, the proposal was met with enthusiasm.

“We fully support President Obama’s vision,” said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, in an email. “It would be a huge boost to our students and Washington’s economy.  And, nationally, it would  go a long way toward rebuilding the American dream of opportunity and upward mobility.”

About half of all Washington high-school graduates who attend college immediately after graduation go to community college, and about 400,000 people statewide are enrolled in the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.

And for some students — mostly those from low-income families — community college in Washington is already free.

South Seattle College has been offering a tuition-free first year to students from Rainier Beach, Cleveland and Sealth high schools since 2008. About 65 percent of graduating seniors apply for the program each year, and more than 450 have participated since it started. The program is open to all, regardless of the student’s family income or high-school grades.

The program is called the 13th Year Promise Scholarship, and it’s funded privately by the college’s foundation. The program also offers academic support services to students.

College Bound, a statewide program for low-income students, also offers to make college tuition-free for students who  sign up for the program in middle school and commit to staying out of legal trouble and keeping a 2.0 grade point average. The program covers tuition at both two-year and four-year public colleges in Washington.

The state also spends about $300 million a year on aid for low-income students to go to college; about a third of that money goes to community college students. The program, called the State Need Grant, is one of the most generous programs offered by any state in the country.

It’s not clear how federal support of community colleges might affect these programs. The community colleges received about $360 million in tuition revenue from students last year.

Some groups are arguing that Obama’s plan would mostly help middle-class students who don’t qualify for aid now because their income is too high, and probably don’t really need the financial assistance. A year of community college for a full-time student costs about $4,000 in Washington.

The Institute for College Access & Success, for example, argues that free community college for all “is a missed opportunity to focus resources on the students who need aid the most.”

Would you or your kids be more likely to attend community college if it was free? Share your thoughts in the comments or via the poll below.

Comments | More in News | Topics: community college, higher education

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