President Obama on Friday called for making at least two years of college education free and universal, a bold idea that reflects his desire to offer far-reaching proposals in his last two years in office, even if Congress is unlikely to adopt them.
Building on a model that has been used by the state of Tennessee and the city of Chicago, the president's proposal would involve the federal government and states combining to pay the entire cost of tuition for two years at a community college for any American who wanted it.
If adopted nationwide, administration officials estimate 9 million people across the country could save about $3800 in college costs. It would probably benefit middle-class students more than the very poorest, who qualify for federal Pell grants that usually cover the cost of community college. People of any age would be eligible for the program.
The concept, according to administration officials, is not to target low-income students explicitly, as anyone can get the two years of tuition as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend school at least half-time. With an increasing number of jobs requiring some kind of higher education, Obama and his team want to turn the first two years of college into something like K-12 schooling, which most Americans get for free, because it is funded by taxpayers.
Community college, in effect, would be universal the way high school is. This approach could make the program more popular, as Social Security and Medicare have strong political constituencies in part because all elderly Americans receive them.
"Two years of college should be free and should be universal and should be of high quality for responsible students, just like high school is today," said Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education, the third-highest ranking official at the U.S. Department of Education.
That funding from taxpayers is where this program is likely to run into objections from Republicans in Congress. The administration estimates the program would cost about $6 billion a year, a small part of the $3.5 trillion federal budget, but a figure members could balk at. The administration has not yet said how it will fund the program.
Obama noted that Tennessee, run by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, adopted this community college idea last year, but that is unlikely to ensure support of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Some Republicans, including Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, have already said they oppose this initiative, arguing the president should allow the states to decide if they want to enact this kind of community college program.
The administration will not be surprised by such resistance. Obama aides say that the president wants to push controversial proposals like this forward in part because it may motivate others, from states and localities to private foundations to presidential candidates, to adopt them, even if he can't get them approved federally. A number of cities and states over the last two years have expanded pre-kindergarten programs and hiked their minimum wages, as Obama has proposed, even as these ideas have not been approved by Republicans in Congress.
"When you're constrained by a Congress that won't pass anything because you proposed it, you have to use your executive authority as much as you can. And you're in a situation where you are trying to seed the ground with good ideas and hopefully those ideas spread and other people take them up," said former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.