President Obama pushed free community college as a core element of his “middle class economics” during the State of the Union address Tuesday night, while avoiding mention of the costs his proposal would entail.
“America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. We were ahead of the curve. But other countries caught on. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more,” Obama said. “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 not smart for our future.”
To remedy the solution, Obama wants Congress to create a new program that would pay for two years of tuition at community college for any Americans who meet a handful of requirements, such as making progress toward a degree and maintaining a sufficiently high GPA.
Obama pushed the bipartisan credentials of his plan, noting that a similar policy has already been implemented in both Republican-run Tennessee and Democrat-dominated Chicago.
“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,” he said.
Obama said his plan would reduce the cost of community college “to zero,” although Republicans will have a ready counter to that claim. While Obama’s plan would cover tuition, it does not address other costs such as housing or books, which are a major component of the costs of attending community college.
Obama avoided directly stating the other reason his proposal wouldn’t be “free:” it actually has an estimated price tag of $60 billion over ten years, a figure he didn’t mention in his speech. While not mentioning the cost, Obama did explain how he would pay for his plan, touting a proposal to close a tax loophole that reduces the amount of capital gains paid families that inherit assets.
“Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college,” Obama said.
The National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank, argued that Obama’s college proposal avoided the real problems with American education.
“It’s something that’s not going to help the current situation for rising tuition, rising loan debt, and federal intervention that’s adding to the problem,” said Lloyd Bentsen, a research fellow with the NCPA. The group also argued that Obama’s proposal was simply trying to compensate for the failures of the K-12 system, rather than trying to improve that system.
Whatever its merits and shortcomings, Obama’s ambitious plan is almost certainly stillborn, at least until after the 2016 election. It has already taken substantial flak from leading Republicans, and on Tuesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate’s education committee, doubled down on that criticism with a blistering attack on Obama’s address.
“I think the president ought to give two State of the Union addresses. We’ve pretty well heard the first one. The one with things Congress wouldn’t ever do. We need to hear the one with proposals that Congress might actually do, working with the president,” Alexander said in a video released just prior to the speech. He said Obama could have mentioned fixing No Child Left Behind, simplifying the student financial aid process, and improving cybersecurity, all proposals currently working through Congress but which went unmentioned in Obama’s address.
Other than his college plan, Obama avoided most of the other education topics that his administration has made substantial efforts on. Despite urging from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, he made no mention of sexual assault on college campuses, nor did he push for expanded preschool access, which he has mentioned in previous speeches. As expected, he also stayed far away from Common Core, which has become extremely controversial ever since his Department of Education began to encourage the standards.
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