During last night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama highlighted his proposal to make community college free for millions of students. His goal, he said, is a “future where two years of college is like high school today: free and universal.” The program, which he detailed during a conference in Tennessee last week, could cover full tuition at an average of $3,800 per year for nearly nine million students nationwide if all eligible schools and states participate.
The President said that the 21st century rewards knowledge; two in three new job openings now require at least some higher education. However, he also said that “too many bright, aspiring individuals are priced out” of higher education due to high tuition and related costs. His proposal to eliminate the cost of community college would help students “graduate ready for a new economy, without a load of debt.” But he also reminded students that they would have to “earn it” by getting good grades and graduating on time. Specifically, the plan would cover tuition for half- and full-time students who maintain a 2.5 GPA (roughly a C+) and who make steady progress toward completing a program.
The proposal for free community college was one of the most widely discussed and popular topics on social media after speech last night using the hashtag #freecommunitycollege on Twitter and Facebook. Many community colleges, educators, and administrators, including the U.S. Department of Education, said they support the plan.
Why are community colleges important?
President Obama likened his free community college proposal to past federal initiatives such as free, universal access to high school and the GI Bill. The President noted that not only are more Americans finishing college now than ever before but 40% are choosing community colleges. So what makes community college different from four-year universities and colleges, and why are they important?
For many, the structure of a community college—with their open-door policies and often small, diverse learning environments—is a better fit than jumping straight into a four-year institution. This can be especially true for young students who need to build their confidence before leaving the nest and moving sometimes great distances to a large university.
But another group of students that the President mentioned last night might benefit just as much from community colleges’ structure: non-traditional students. The diversity of student populations, programs focusing on certifications, and flexibility of class scheduling can be huge assets to adults looking to change careers or gain additional training in their profession.
There are still many details to consider in the President’s free community college proposal, including where the funding would come from. But as smaller areas in Tennessee and Chicago demonstrate the success of this kind of program, there is an opportunity for a wider—even national—plan. The President’s proposal heads to Congress next, and so there will likely be many more discussions to come.
To read or watch the President’s proposal details, visit the White House’s blog.