President Barack Obama wants to make publicly funded community college available to all Americans -- a sweeping, multibillion-dollar proposal that would make higher education as accessible as a high school diploma to boost weak U.S. wages and skills for the modern workforce.
The program, dubbed America's College Promise, is expected to cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, and it faces a Republican Congress averse to big new spending programs. Obama was promoting the idea on Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, a follow-up to a video message posted to Facebook Thursday evening.
"Put simply, what I'd like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it," Obama said in the video. He spoke seated on the front of his desk from his office aboard Air Force One, in the midst of a three-day tour to preview the agenda he'll be outlining in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address.
"It's something that we can accomplish, and it's something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world," Obama said.
Administration officials on a conference call with reporters Thursday evening said funding details would be released next month with the president's budget proposal. They estimated 9 million students could participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year, suggesting an annual cost in the tens of billions of dollars.
Students would qualify if they attend at least half time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program. Participating schools would have to meet certain academic requirements.
The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost, and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program.
If passed, the program could affect thousands of Bay Area college students. San Jose Evergreen Community College District alone serves over 20,000 students from diverse backgrounds at its two campuses. Chancellor Rita Cepeda is optimistic about Obama's proposal and says she hopes partisan politics won't get in the way of investing in education.
"Community colleges nationally and in the state of California serve primarily low-income, certainly the middle-class and they have been the entry point, the doorway, to immigrants," Cepeda said. "The impact is quite focused, quite targeted on the highest need."
Cepeda has been working in community college education for over 30 years and remembers when all higher education in California was free. While community college is still the least expensive way to earn a degree, costs have risen steadily from $5 per unit in 1984-85 to $46 per unit in the summer of 2012.
California is well placed to take advantage of the proposed plan, Cepeda said, because its community colleges have been steadily working to comply with the Student Success Act of 2012, which restructured elements of the community college experience to focus on helping students reach a degree or certificate, or transfer to a four-year university.
"We're on target," Cepeda said. "We're sort of aligned, if you will. Both policies are consummate."
She said that six years ago most students came to San Jose Evergreen pursuing the prerequisites to transfer to a Cal State or UC school. Since then she's seen a shift, as more students aim to finish their associate degrees or obtain a specialized certification instead.
"We have focused on career and technical education programs where there's high skill and high worth, in terms of employment," Cepeda said. "So many of our students are seeking the associate's degree, getting that certification and going right to work, earning as much and sometimes more than a person with a baccalaureate."
Obama's proposal was inspired by a pioneering scholarship program called Tennessee Promise that provides free community and technical college tuition for two years, and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year. It has drawn 58,000 applicants, almost 90 percent of the state's high school seniors.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary who is set to take over the Senate committee that oversees education, said states and not the federal government should follow Tennessee's lead. He said Washington's role should be to reduce paperwork for student aid applications and fund Pell Grants for low-income students that would result from an expansion of community college enrollment.
"The reason Tennessee can afford Tennessee Promise is that 56 percent of our state's community college students already have a federal Pell Grant, which averages $3,300, to help pay for the average $3,800-per-year tuition. The state pays the difference — $500 on average," Alexander said in a written statement.
Other critics say the public education system is broken, top-to-bottom, and Obama's proposal doubles down on an ineffective system.
“President Obama's answer to a broken higher education system is to fold it into an equally broken secondary education system," Generation Opportunity President Evan Feinberg said in a statement. "There's no reason to think that a government-run K-14 education will do much more to prepare us for the jobs of the future than a government-run K-12 education."
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi supports the plan, writing in a statement:
"Nothing returns more to the treasury than our investments in education, from early childhood through lifetime learning. Affordable, accessible education is essential to keeping America number one, and it is my hope that Republicans will work with us to strengthen our community colleges and empower every American to succeed."
Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press contributed to this report.