- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2015

Outlining one of the costlier initiatives of his second term, President Obama proposed Friday that all community college students receive full tuition paid by the government.

“I want to make it free,” Mr. Obama told students at a community college in Knoxville, Tennessee. “I think it’s a right for everybody who’s willing to work for it.”

The president’s plan, which would require congressional approval, would call for the federal government to pay 75 percent of students’ community-college tuition and for states to pick up the rest of the tab. White House aides said the initiative, modeled on a fledgling program in Tennessee, would cost U.S. taxpayers about $60 billion over its first 10 years.

But if the program were fully implemented to cover as many as 9 million students per year, the cost to the federal government would be more than $25 billion per year.

Mr. Obama called the program “the centerpiece of my education agenda,” and said it could be “a game-changer” for higher education.

“No one should be denied a college education just because they don’t have the money,” the president said. “Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today.”

The president was accompanied on the trip on Air Force One by Tennessee’s Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. Mr. Corker said he doesn’t support Mr. Obama’s proposal, saying he doesn’t think a big federal program is the best way to extend community college to more students.

“You’re always better off letting states mimic each other,” Mr. Corker said.

Under the plan, students with at least a C-plus average who attend school at least half-time and who are making “steady progress” toward a degree would qualify for tuition paid entirely by taxpayers.

The president said his proposal is “not a free lunch” because students would need to keep their grades up to qualify.

“There are no free rides in America,” Mr. Obama said. “Students would have to do their part by keeping their grades up. This isn’t a blank check.”

The president noted that Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, initiated the program. And Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, also has started a similar initiative.

“If a state with Republican leadership is doing this, and a city with Democratic leadership is doing this, how about we all do it?” Mr. Obama said. “I hope that Congress will come together to support it.”

Democratic lawmakers reacted favorably to the proposal. But Republicans in Congress questioned how the administration intended to pay for it.

Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican, noted that the state’s program is paid for by a lottery reserve fund that she said doesn’t result in added cost to taxpayers.

“By contrast, the president’s proposal appears to be a top-down federal program that will ask already cash-strapped states to help pick up the tab,” she said. “Will the president offer proposals to make his plan budget-neutral, or will he attempt to charge it to the credit card?”

Cory Fritz, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the plan lacks details.

“The speaker is for making college opportunities more available but the White House needs to fill in the blanks, starting with the cost to taxpayers,” Mr. Fritz said.

The American Association of Community Colleges, an advocacy organization for nearly 1,200 two-year institutions, applauded the proposal, saying more needy students would see higher learning as a viable option.

Legislators tend to like and support community colleges, but identifying the funds to carry the proposal could be a sticking point, according David Baime, the association’s senior vice president for government relations.

“I think, by all reckoning, it’s going to be a challenge to identify that level of resources for our institutions,” he said.

And the reaction from Democrats suggested the president’s proposal is aimed at least in part at portraying the GOP as anti-education heading into the 2016 presidential election. The Democratic National Committee put out a statement Friday accusing Republican lawmakers of “standing in the way of making college more affordable” and criticizing the education policies of potential Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this article.

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