Obama introduces free community college plan in the US

Last week, 9th of January, Obama introduced his new plan for free community college during his visit to Tennessee. Obama reportedly commented on this: “For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class. I want to make it free.”

A video preview to the initiative was posted earlier on the White House Facebook page.


While all the financial details are not clear yet, the plan is indeed ambitious and is reported to cost approximately 60 billion dollars over 10 years – the key idea is that federal funds would cover 3/4 and state funds the remaining part. The proposal is that free tuition would be conditional – students would be expected to maintain a 2,5 GPA, be minimum part-time students and assure progression through their studies.

According to the American Associaytion of Community Colleges, there are over 1100 community colleges in the US, catering to nearly 13 million students (2012), representing almost half of all the undergraduate students in the US. 60% of the students are part time, and many work aside their studies. About one third of the students are first generation to attend college. In principle the sector has already been known for relatively lower tuition levels than one would find in the universities. The degrees awarded are associate degrees and various certificates. While many of the students already receive various kinds of state and federal financial aid, nearly 30% of the revenues for the institutions come from tuition fees.

The proposal has been inspired by the “Tennessee Promise” scholarship programme, where Tennessee in principle made community college free – arguably a necessary step as the predictions suggest that by 2025 55% of new jobs would require a higher education degree (min 2 years), whereas the current attainment levels are at 32%. The Tennessee programme has been reported to be successful this far, and as many as 65% are first generation college attendants and 70% come from low-income families. Furthermore, the Tennessee programme also includes a mentoring system.

However, some of the commentary has also put focus on the increasing college costs in the US, CNN commentary highlighted the 500% increase in college tuition between 1985 and today, compared to a wage increase of 140%. The data published in Bloomberg in 2013 showed how college tuition is amongst the costs that had risen dramatically, raising questions about value for money. This clearly exemplifies that college in general has become substantially more expensive for the average American. This incredible increase has led to what can be considered a industry of loans. Earlier on the Hedda blogg, Martina Vukasovic has written about some of the peculiaritis of the system, highlighting issues of affordability. Current proposal by Obama would not alleviate the general increase in tuition in the whole system.

The proposal has created a storm of debate in the media, as well as social media. For those on Twitter, follow the hashtag #FreeCommunityCollege. Some effects of the proposal could already be seen – for instance, the stocks of publicly traded for-profit institutions dropped on Friday. For profit colleges are in general the closest competitor for the student segment who traditionally attends community college. Furthermore, Huffingtonpost cited Rober Kelchen a professor on higher education finance who argues that the proposal also has an important signalling value regarding costs of college: “This sends a clear message that community college is an affordable option for all students.” As such some of the effects can also be indirect.

Overall, the initiative is seen as being most important for low-income and first generation college attending students. Commentary in Washington Post also highlighted the fact that tuition alone is merely 21% of the costs that students of community college face, but nevertheless sees the proposal as important in reducing overall graduate debt. Other reviews suggest that the impact could be “huge”, and “genious”. Responses in the Guardian (UK) also highlight how this plan is “big part of the solution” in a country where tuition fees largely decide who gets to attend college.

However, not all have been positive about the suggestion. Many report on the potential difficulties of getting the proposal through the Republican majority. However, it should be noted that the Tennessee initiative is led by Republican senator, and a commentary on Inside Higher Ed suggests that this might be an area where Obama will be able to work with Congressional Republicans, even if there appears to be more support amongst Republicans to have this as a policy learning exercise between states rather than a federal plan.

A commentary published in Forbes has termed the whole initiative a “poor investment”, amongst else due to the general debt level and issues of balancing the federal budget, graduate unemployment, low graduation rates in community college. In addition, the commentary highlights potential fee explosion in the community colleges due to such a scholarship programme. In her commentary on Fox news, Judah Bellin has also been critical of the proposal highlighting the low graduation rates and lack of incentives to assure outcomes in the community colleges. Issues within the sector were also highlighted in the Bloomberg View editorial – where it is suggested that free tuition should be tied to institutional performance and graduation rates. Furthermore, the general sustainability of such an initiative has been quesitoned.

While it is likely that the process to get the plan approved is likely to be an uphill battle, it does the very least put increased focus on increasing college costs and affordability in the US, where both parties can have some common ground in terms of the desired objectives – even one might agree on the appropriate means.