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President Obama wants to make two years of community college "as free and universal as high school" in a plan unveiled last week. If approved by Congress, America's College Promise would provide federal funding to cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college, provided states make certain commitments. The White House proposal is based on a new program in Tennessee, where community college and technical school students can apply for the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which provides two years of tuition-free education.

The proposal was announced by video and during a visit by the president on January 9 to Pellissippi State Community College, outside Knoxville. A White House fact sheet offers few specifics; further details are expected to become available following the State of the Union address and when the administration releases the federal budget request for FY16.

The plan outlines some specific expectations for participating students, colleges and states:

  • Students must attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program to have their tuition covered.
  • Community colleges must offer programs that either (1) are academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities or (2) are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers. The fact sheet also states, "Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes," calling attention to college persistence and degree completion programs at the City University of New York as an example.
  • States that choose to participate will be expected to contribute one-quarter of the funds necessary to eliminate community college tuition for eligible students, with the federal government picking up three-quarters.

Obama also proposes a new American Technical Training Fund to pay for programs that help "high-potential, low-wage workers gain the skills to work into growing fields with significant numbers of middle-class jobs that local employers are trying to fill such as energy, IT, and advanced manufacturing."

The White House proposals will be considered by Congress as it works toward reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which expires September 30, 2015, and during FY16 budget negotiations. The proposal has been met with mixed reactions, with some critical of the eligibility requirements the federal government would impose on states and others arguing that the tuition subsidy fails to target the neediest students, enabling all students to benefit from generous grants. Others are lauding the strong position the administration has taken in expanding federal support to make access to a college education universal and grow the number of college graduates in the United States.


Liz Clark

Vice President, Policy and Research


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