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Obama Continues Push for Free Community College

January 27, 2016

"We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job," President Obama said during his State of the Union address before Congress on January 12.  A subsequent fact sheet released by the Department of Education makes clear that, in this final year of his administration, Obama will push for a number of college access and completion measures. 

Although details of his FY17 budget request will not be available until February 9, the ED release outlines his higher education policy goals, which include a call for a year-round Pell Grant and America's College Promise, a program that, if enacted, would make "high quality" community college free for "responsible students."

Obama supports continuing to index the Pell Grant to inflation, and his proposed enhancements to the program include:

  • On-Track Pell Bonus. This incentive would reward students who make faster progress to completion with additional funds.
  • Pell for Accelerated Completion. This program would reinstate year-round Pell availability, allowing students to receive funds for summer courses. The administration estimates that this would enable nearly 700,000 students next year to make faster progress to degree completion.

America's College Promise

In an effort to help students from all backgrounds reach their higher education goals, Obama is focusing on making college more affordable by pushing for the America's College Promise program.  As NACUBO reported in October, the administration's overarching goal is to make two years of community college "as free and universal as high school" to qualifying students through a combination of federal and state funds.

Under the plan, the federal government would provide 75 percent of the funds to states that committed to the project. The president's proposal estimates the cost to be $60 billion over 10 years. States would have to provide the remaining quarter of funds.

To qualify for the program, students would need to be enrolled at least half time, maintain at least a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completion. Only students from families with an adjusted gross income of $200,000 or less would be eligible.

While some goals may be accomplished this year through action on FY17 budget bills, others will take shape during negotiations on an update to the Higher Education Act (HEA).  HEA is due for reauthorization; however, it is unclear whether policymakers can pass a full-scale reauthorization during what is expected to be a contentious election year. Obama may press Congress to act in an effort to build on his legacy and dedication to college completion. Yet partisanship on Capitol Hill could stymie efforts to advance comprehensive higher education legislation in 2016. NACUBO will continue to keep members updated on legislative activity.


Liz Clark
Senior Director, Federal Affairs