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Explainer: President Obama’s Proposal for Free Tuition at Community College

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Yesterday, in a short, videotaped preview of his upcoming State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled a new proposal: Make two years of community college free for all students who meet certain eligibility standards.

Here is what you should know about the proposal.

obama-communitycollegeWhat would students have to do?

Students would be required to “attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.”

What would community colleges have to do to qualify?

Community colleges would be expected to offer programs that are either academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities, or occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to “in-demand degrees and certificates.” Community colleges would also be required to “adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.”

What would the federal government do?

Federal funding would cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college (about $1,425 a year) while participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.

States that already invest more and charge students less can make smaller contributions, though all participating states would be required to put up some matching funds. States must also commit to continue existing investments in higher education; coordinate high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to reduce the need for remediation and repeated courses; and allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone.

How many people would be eligible?

The White House estimates that 9 million students would be eligible. Technically, that’s true since it’s roughly the number of community college students in America. But not all students maintain a 2.5 GPA (a B/B- on the letter-grade scale).

Who would most benefit from the proposal?

The middle and upper-income groups, since the lower income groups already get subsidized tuition for community college. As the College Board notes, in 2011-12, net tuition and fees at public two‑year colleges ranged from $0 for students in the lower half of the income distribution to $2,051 for the highest-income group.

What are the chances the proposal will become reality?

Approximately zero—at least while President Obama is in office. Congress, which is now controlled by Republicans, will never agree to pass a law that adds tens of billions of dollars a year to the federal deficit

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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