President to announce initiative to make community college more accessible

Plan would offer two years of free education

WASHINGTON D.C. - President Barack Obama will propose on Friday that students across the country be eligible for two years of free community college, a move the White House says could put a college degree within reach for as many as 9 million students.

Taking a page from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise scholarship program, Obama will propose offering two years of tuition-free community college to students in certain programs. To qualify, students would be expected to maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and would have to make steady progress toward completing their degree.

“The goal is to create a partnership with states across the country to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students to make sure students complete at least two years of college,” said Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.      

Obama will announce the national scholarship program on Friday when he, Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, visit Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn. Haslam also will be on hand for the announcement.

The community college proposal that Obama will unveil is part of his campaign to help more Americans go to college and will be included in the 2016 budget proposal that he will send to Congress. Obama also is expected to discuss the proposal during his State of the Union address on Jan. 20.

The program will involve a federal-state partnership. States will have the option of participating, and those that do will be expected to contribute some funding for the program. However, three-quarters of the funding will be provided by the federal government. Munoz declined to say how much the program would cost but said the funding proposal will be available in the president’s proposed budget.

“The goal here is to do what the country did more than a century ago when we made high school free,” Munoz said. “That made it inevitable and then a part of the broader education picture for students. The goal is to make community college now like high school was then – to make it available, accessible and quality so it becomes part of the broad education spectrum for all students in the country.”

Community colleges will be expected to offer academic programs that will transfer to a four-year public college or university or occupational training programs in which students can earn degrees or certificates that are in demand among employers.

Those are the programs for which the free tuition will be available. Students of any age would qualify, which would make the program open to adult workers who are returning to school.

States would be expected to continue their existing investment in education, Munoz said.

“We don’t want states to back away from what they are already doing in higher education,” she said. “The goal is to expand what is available and affordable for students.”

The national program will build on the example of Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program and similar programs that are available in some cities across the country, such as Chicago.

The Tennessee Promise program offers two years of free community college or technical school for all high school graduates in the state. The scholarships will be awarded for the first time to the class of 2015, and nearly 90 percent of the state’s high school seniors already have applied.

In December, Haslam and the program were lauded in Washington at a White House summit on expanding opportunities for college.

“We believe that a robust federal program is going to make this available more rapidly across the country, but to a greater range of students, even in places like Tennessee,” Munoz said.

To contact reporter Michael Collins about this story email him or find him on Twitter @mcollinsscripps

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