President Barack Obama's proposal last week to make tuition free for students attending community colleges would have far-reaching consequences for higher education in this country. In effect, it would transform the first two years of college into an extension of the traditional K-12 public school model and make college attendance as affordable as high school is today. It remains doubtful that the president can persuade the Republican-controlled Congress to go along with his idea in an era of tight federal spending and partisan gridlock, and there are important questions about whether a means-tested program would be more sensible than a blanket entitlement. But he has at least opened a conversation about a matter of critical importance for America's future that makes both educational and economic sense.
Under the president's plan, community college students could attend classes and earn degrees tuition-free if they enrolled at least half time and maintained a 2.5 or better grade point average. The federal government would pick up as much as 75 percent of the cost, and states that chose to participate in the program would chip in the rest. Currently some 40 percent of students pursuing higher education attend community colleges. Given rapidly rising tuitions, the president's initiative could enable many more families to finance their children's educations.
Community colleges already represent one of the country's best educational values. Tuition costs often are less than half those at public four-year institutions, and many community colleges offer guaranteed admission to a four-year public college or university to those who complete the requirements for a two-year associate's degree or certificate program. Community colleges courses also offer technical skills with direct links to jobs in high-demand professions. For students who are unsure whether they can afford a traditional college education, the two-year programs offer an attractive, relatively inexpensive alternative that equips them with a postsecondary degree as well as marketable skills.
Mr. Obama didn't specify details of his initiative but focused instead on the bigger picture of expanding postsecondary education to make at least two years of college the norm. (The White House later provided a figure of $60 billion over 10 years for the program.) Meanwhile, critics in Congress and elsewhere have already charged that the nation can't afford that kind of investment or that the program at minimum should be more narrowly targeted toward helping the nation's neediest students. Those questions deserve an honest debate, but they shouldn't overshadow the overall message that the nation's traditional model of 13 years of schooling is no longer adequate — too many children start out behind because they lack the foundation a high-quality pre-K program can provide, and too many leave school without the skills needed to compete in the economy. Mr. Obama has in recent years proposed extending educational opportunity on both ends of the scholastic spectrum, and a number of states have already taken steps in that direction.
Mr. Obama unveiled his plan in Tennessee because the White House initiative is at least partly modeled on a similar effort supported by the state's Republican governor, Bill Haslam. The program there, which provides tuition assistance for students at 13 of the state's community colleges, is expected to cost about $14 million and serve up to 16,000 students in its first year. Though the White House plan differs from the Tennessee program in several significant ways — it does not help cover fees, books, housing, transportation and other expenses, for example — the president is obviously hoping that the fact his initiative draws on elements of a GOP effort in a conservative state will help marshal enough bipartisan support to win approval in a Republican-controlled Congress.
Of course, the fact that universal pre-K is available in Republican states like Georgia and Oklahoma hasn't helped that cause advance in Congress. But the point is that developing a 21st century model for public education should not be a partisan issue. The federal government has helped college students finance their educations through Pell grants and student loans for decades, and the country is undoubtedly stronger for it. Mr. Obama's initiative is an attempt to build on that progress, and it deserves a full and fair hearing from both sides of the political aisle.