Obama’s dream of free community college is headed to Congress

Trying to make this a reality for more Americans.
Trying to make this a reality for more Americans.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Two members of US Congress introduced a bill today (July 8), backed by the Obama administration, that would pay for two years of community and technical colleges for first-time American students.

“America’s College Promise Act,” which senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and representative Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) told reporters has at least 10 Democratic Senate co-sponsors and 61 Democratic co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, is a small step in attempting to tackle the problem of skyrocketing higher education costs in the US. Though it wouldn’t likely pass in the Republican-controlled Congress, it may get some wind in its sails because of US president Barack Obama’s proposal earlier this year to grant all US students access to free community college.

More importantly, the bill exemplifies a larger nationwide push (paywall) to reduce the cost of an undergraduate degree for debt-burdened Americans. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has gained popularity on a platform that champions free community college, and this month in Oregon lawmakers passed a bill to implement free community college for students statewide, based on a similar program already offered in Tennessee. A solid show of support could encourage lawmakers in other states and districts to propose similar measures.

The plan, which would pay for students enrolled at least half-time with satisfactory grades, would cost the federal government about $90 billion over the next decade, lawmakers said during a press call—$30 billion more than Obama’s initial estimate. Of that, about $80 billion would go toward covering 75% of the cost of community college, while states would need to pay the other 25%. The remaining $10 billion would go toward paying tuition for low-income students at four-year minority-serving institutions such as historically black colleges and Hispanic colleges. Lawmakers supporting the bill estimate that if all the states participate, nine million college students could save an average of $3,800 each per year on tuition.

“We all believe that every student in America deserves a fair shot at a higher education and a path toward the middle class,” Baldwin said during a press call. Republican lawmakers have argued that the federal government can’t afford free college tuition for all, nor can Americans afford the higher taxes needed to foot the bill. Obama has also argued that the initiative would help bridge the gap in skills between American workers and jobs.

Americans must have at least a bachelor’s degree to earn more than the median weekly wage in the country.

Under the new bill, states would have to ensure that eligible two-year community and technical colleges meet quality standards, and that credits from two-year colleges are fully transferrable to four-year schools. Currently only 16% of two-year college students actually go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. The hope is that lessening the financial burden of those first two years would help students complete a bachelor’s degree.