During his State of Union Address, President Obama continued to make the pitch for his America’s College Promise proposal to make two years of community college, which could let students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost.
“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education — two in three,” Obama said during his address. “And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure not smart for our future. That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.” The White House believes the proposal, which was unveiled on Jan. 9, would require all stakeholders to do their part: community colleges, for instance, would have to strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, while states would be required to invest more in higher education and training.
Finally, students would have to t take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate.
“Keep in mind 40% of our college students choose community college,” Obama said. “Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy without a load of debt. Understand, you’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time.”
The Republican-led Congress isn’t a fan of the community college plan, criticizing the estimated $60 billion price tag and controversial proposed taxes to help fund the effort. The president recognizes the uphill battle in his SOTU speech, saying he looks forward to working together with Republicans to make the plan a reality.
Tennessee, Chicago efforts are models
The program would be undertaken in partnership with states and is inspired by new programs in Tennessee and Chicago. If all states participate, an estimated nine million students could benefit.
A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. “Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible,” Obama said. “I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”
Tennessee Promise offers two years of tuition-free community or technical college to Tennessee high school graduates beginning with the Class of 2015.
Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it will cover college costs not met from student aid. As part of the program, students are provided with a mentor who will support them during the college application process.
The Chicago Star Scholarship has stricter requirements. Students who graduate from Chicago Public Schools in Spring 2015 or after with a 3.0 GPA who test college-ready in math and English will be able to pursue an associate degree at City Colleges of Chicago at no cost – free tuition, fees and books. In order to receive the Star Scholarship, students must apply for financial aid so that any financial aid dollars can be applied first as part of the waiver.
Controversial tax change would help Student aid plays a key role in these programs, and the White House would help low-income students in completing college through making the American Opportunity Tax Credit permanent.
The credit, created by economic recovery law in 2009 and due to expire in 2017, assists families with the costs of college, providing up to $10,000 for four years of college tuition.
The continuation of the credit would be paid for in part by altering the way families use 529 savings plans, a special investment vehicle typically administered by states that Americans use to save for college. The proposed reforms would end families’ ability to remove money tax-free, something people have been able to do since 2001.
Currently, families can invest in 529 plans and use the earnings tax-free, as long as the money is used for college expenses. President Barack Obama’s reforms would begin taxing these types of withdrawals, with the money showing up as income in financial aid calculations.
“It’s another example of his outdated, top-down approach – when our focus ought to be on providing opportunity for all Americans,” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) said. “And so, for the sake of middle-class families, the president ought to withdraw this tax increase from his budget when he submits it soon.”