President Obama's proposal to offer two years of free community college to many students has plenty of hurdles ahead — chief among them the massive task of persuading a Republican Congress to go along.
But the proposal is important, even if it's unlikely to happen, because it puts forward a radical idea: a future where free, universal education expands beyond K-12 through the first two years of college.
That's a huge change. But tuition isn't the main barrier to a college degree for many community college students. If free tuition plans are going to succeed, they'll eventually have to grapple with that.
How free college helps the middle class
The most radical part of Obama's free community college proposal isn't that it's free — it's that it's universal.
About one-third of all college students in the US — 6.1 million — attend community college, either as a first step on the road to a four-year degree or as an end in itself.
And community college is already a relative bargain. For the poorest students, tuition is usually entirely covered by federal financial aid, sometimes with money left over to help pay for living expenses. Obama's plan could boost enrollments higher still by making free community college available to students from middle-class and wealthy families.
Obama's plan is inspired by the Tennessee Promise, which starting this year will offer free community college tuition to high school graduates in the state who attend full-time, keep up a GPA of 2.0, and perform community service. A similar program is underway in Chicago.
These free tuition programs are a great deal for middle- and upper-income families. But they aren't as helpful for low-income students who already get federal Pell Grants. The programs in Tennessee and Chicago only cover whatever tuition Pell money hasn't already paid for, which usually isn't much.
Obama's proposal, though, would apply before Pell Grants. That means that poor students would have more Pell Grant money left over to help them pay for books and other life expenses. But Obama's college plan would also help a constituency largely ignored by federal aid programs: families who earn too much for federal financial aid but aren't wealthy enough to afford thousands of dollars of college bills.
This might not be the most effective way to spend federal money. But it's politically smart. To see why, look at pre-K. Most of the research on pre-kindergarten effectiveness is about whether it helps poor children catch up to their peers from wealthier families. But in 1995, Georgia decided to use lottery winnings to make free pre-K available not just to the poor, but to any family who wanted to join.
Two decades later, Georgia's universal pre-K program is very popular, championed by liberals and conservatives alike. And the reason it's managed to stay relatively apolitical and noncontroversial is that it's universal, Fawn Johnson wrote in National Journal last year. A program just for the poor "would be about class warfare," one Georgia Republican told her.
Other states and cities — from deep-red Oklahoma to deep-blue New York City — have followed Georgia's lead and pursued universal pre-K. Even if Obama's proposal doesn't take off, it's easy to imagine Tennessee's free community college program following similar path: spreading through states and cities until, a few decades from now, it gets real momentum.
Why 'free' is a magic word — but it's not enough
Tennessee expected about 20,000 of its 65,000 high school seniors to sign up for the Tennessee Promise this year. Their expectations were too low. Nearly 58,000 have taken the first step in the application process, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education— almost 90 percent of all 12th-graders in the state.
This is a huge deal. While state officials don't expect every student who's signed up for Tennessee Promise to end up in college, the program made college seem more attainable for tens of thousands of students. "Free" turned out to be a magic word.
If free college can nudge more students to aspire to higher education, that's great. It will also lead to new challenges as states scramble to find and pay for more faculty and more classroom space. And it should increase pressure on high schools to graduate students who are ready for credit-bearing coursework rather than needing remedial help.
But there's one problem: getting students to go to college isn't actually the biggest hurdle. It's getting them to finish.
American students start college at about the same rate as their peers in developed countries. But something happens to them along the way. At community colleges in particular, only about 34 percent of students attending community college for the first time earn a degree within six years.
What happens? There's a common cliché at community colleges: life gets in the way. Students end up having to work full-time and take semesters off. Or they're unable to find reliable transportation or child care. Or they get stuck in remedial math and English coursework, get discouraged, and drop out before they earn college credits.
Obama's plan focuses on rewarding "responsible" students — students who are attending at least half-time and earning a 2.5 GPA. And it's possible that free tuition at community colleges will attract wealthier, better-prepared students who are able to attend full-time and quickly graduate or transfer to a four-year college.
But it's wrong to assume students who aren't doing that right now — who maybe can't do that — aren't responsible. In many cases, they're simply responsible for too much besides their education. That's a problem that free tuition alone can't solve, and one that's crucial to fix. Free tuition will get more students in the door. It will take more to help them earn college degrees.
Update: This piece originally stated it wasn't clear if Obama's plan would apply before or after Pell Grants. It's now been clarified that it will apply before Pell Grants are applied, freeing up more financial aid funds for poor students to use for other purposes.