Obama’s vision for free community college is getting help from a $100 million contest

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Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Free community college education for an entire country, which Barack Obama pledged for America early last year, is one of those ideas that’s infinitely easier to suggest than to implement. To its credit, the US government is plowing ahead, and Monday (April 25) it announced the newest prong of the president’s plan: a $100 million competition.

Through the Labor Department, the White House will award grants to community colleges that team up with employers to offer skills-specific education—programs in IT or cybersecurity, for example—for free to unemployed, underemployed, or low-income workers. The partnerships will ideally help thousands of people secure better-paying jobs without incurring student debt. “These are the kinds of investments that will allow us to outcompete the world,” vice president Joe Biden said in today’s announcement.

Offering financial rewards to schools for going tuition-free is a smart strategy, as most institutions are unlikely to offer free education themselves. Currently, there are 27 small local programs offering free community college, which have served an estimated 40,000 students. That’s a far cry from the nine million that the White House hopes will eventually benefit, but a number that will surely increase thanks to the new grants competition.

Obama’s vision for free community college isn’t the same idea, pushed by Bernie Sanders and some other politicians, as free public university education. While the former would offer massive benefits to average workers—not to mention increased upward mobility and overall economic prosperity—the latter has been criticized as somewhat self-defeating.