Obama proposes free college plan

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Illustration by Marlon Bell
By J. Gomez

President Barack Obama’s proposal for free community college has attracted praise from students and education advocates and criticism from fiscal watchdogs who consider “America’s College Promise” too expensive.

“I think everybody understands education is the key to success for our kids in the 21st Century,” Obama said in a video statement announcing the plan. “But what we also understand is that it’s not just for kids. We also have to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.”

Obama’s plan would provide free tuition for all students who attend school at least half time, maintain GPAs of at least 2.5 and graduate with an associate’s degree or certificate within three years.

The model for “America’s College Promise,” a program in Tennessee where there is a Republican governor, has attracted 58,000 applicants, double the expected number. The Tennessee program receives funding through its state lottery fund.

“This idea of free community college is marvelous,” history professor Mike Noble said. “It has the potential of being as big as the GI Bill in 1944. It’s got that same level of importance in my mind.”

But government professor Stacey Jurhree said the program isn’t needed.

“I don’t think it will cause people to become more educated,” Jurhree said. “Those who want to go to college are going to go whether it’s free or not, because if it’s in you to do something, you’re going to do it.”

Pell Grants, which are based on financial need, income and college costs, do not have to be repaid. Juhree and others argue that those with middle-class incomes should be eligible, eliminating the need for the president’s new program.

The federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost for Obama’s plan while states would pay the remainder, according to the White House. The program would cost $60.3 billion over the next decade, according to the Department of Education.

Republicans have said the program costs too much.

“We have added more debt during the Obama years than all the presidents from George Washington to George Bush, and giving away tuition strikes me as something we can’t afford,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on “60 Minutes.”

Even some of those who believe they would find the plan useful worry about the cost.

“I think it’s a pretty good thing as long as a good percentage of people were able to benefit without it being really expensive though,” philosophy major Shartavia Grant said.

The initiative could have a broad impact on the American education system.

“It will help elevate financial aid because if the federal government is paying for everyone to go to community college, there will be more money to give to students at the four-year schools,” Noble said.

Critics have raised concerns about the possibility of new standardized testing and a government-regulated curriculum. Others worry that admissions criteria might be raised to curb influx of new students the program would create.

“As a student, paying less is always nice, but … you would have to raise the standards because you couldn’t have every single citizen of Dallas [attending] the seven schools in DCCCD,” history major Alex Courson said.

DCCCD Chancellor Joe May, who supports the president’s plan, said the labor market needs educated workers, and community colleges can provide that training.

“With this type of opportunity, the nation’s students can get the education and training they need to obtain employment with high salaries in high-demand fields, regardless of their financial situation” May said.

By 2018, there will be a shortage of 3 million workers with enough education to fill jobs, according to a Georgetown University study, and by 2020 about two-thirds of jobs will require some training past high school.

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