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Obama's plan to make community college free, explained

Obama at Northern Virginia Community College in 2013.
Obama at Northern Virginia Community College in 2013.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.
  1. President Obama will call on Congress to pass legislation making the first two years of community college free for students.
  2. The federal government would cover three-quarters of the cost, with states kicking in the final 25 percent.
  3. Free college is a surprisingly controversial idea aside from its cost: some people argue benefits wealthier students at the expense of poorer ones.
  4. The program is likely to be dead on arrival in Congress, but it's the administration's first major college affordability proposal in some time.

How Obama's free college proposal would work

Obama is proposing two years of free community college for students who attend at least half-time and maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5. That wouldn't cover the entire cost for most students — students who finish community college in two years are rare — but the White House estimates it would save 9 million students around $3,800 per year in tuition if every state chose to participate.

The White House said details will be in the president's 2016 budget request but declined to offer specifics on how much the program would cost. It's not clear how the program would work, how the grants to states would be structured, or how the federal money would interact with the Pell Grant, federal aid for low-income students that about 38 percent of all community college students receive.

Other states and cities, including Tennessee and Chicago, have proposed programs that cover any remaining tuition and fees after other grants and scholarships are applied.

Why free college isn't always as great as it sounds

Free college sounds great — but advocates for low-income students argue that it's not always as great as it sounds. The program is more likely to directly benefit middle-class and wealthier students who are more able to afford tuition. Community college tuition for poorer students is often entirely covered by the need-based Pell Grant. And at community colleges, it's often living expenses and foregone wages, not tuition prices, that are the biggest financial barrier to attendance.

But that doesn't mean there aren't other benefits to making higher education free. Obama has praised Tennessee's program, the Tennessee Promise, which begins with this year's high school class and offers two years of free community college tuition. About 50,000 high school seniors completed the initial sign-up — more than three-quarters of all high school seniors in the state.

That's one effect free college programs can have: they can make college seem possible for everybody, even students who didn't think they could afford to go.

How this proposal fits into the Obama higher education agenda

Republicans in Congress aren't likely to favor an expensive new state grant program. But Congress has ignored many of Obama's higher education proposals for years, and the free community college proposal is different from many of those ideas.

Obama has focused more on higher education than any previous president. And his proposals have had three broad planks: helping more students go to college (access), helping them pay for it (affordability), and holding colleges responsible for their tuition prices and for how their students fare after graduation (accountability).

Lately, accountability has gotten the most attention, particularly a proposal to rate colleges based on their quality. This plan is a big shift back toward college access and affordability, and it could influence the conversation as the 2016 election begins even if the proposal doesn't ever make it to the floor of the House or Senate.