Obama Reaffirms Call for Nationwide Free Community College in State of the Union

Policy
Posted By Derek Johnson on January 13, 2016 at 3:17 pm
Obama Reaffirms Call for Nationwide Free Community College in State of the Union

In his eighth and final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama again urged lawmakers to help reduce the cost of higher education by offering tuition-free community college across the nation. The plan, modeled off several statewide initiatives such as the Tennessee Promise, would partner with states to allow students who meet certain qualifications to waive their tuition fees while gaining credits that set them on the path to a viable bachelor’s degree.

“Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to [lower the cost of college], and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year,” said Obama.

Obama committed to keeping ‘America’s College Promise’

By reaffirming his support for the proposal (called “America’s College Promise”) one year to the day after his initial proposal received a lukewarm congressional response, Obama might be hoping to pass the torch to one of the Democratic candidates running for president in 2016.

The campaigns for both Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Senator Hillary Clinton have put forth debt-free college proposals that differ from the president’s in substantial ways. Obama’s only targets community colleges while Sanders and Clinton have pushed for more ambitious “tuition-free” or “debt-free” college at all public universities. Sanders’ and Clinton’s plans would also likely cost substantially more, as the average yearly tuition at in-state public, four-year universities ($9,139) costs approximately three times what it does for community colleges ($3,347).

It is unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress will act on the president’s plan before he leaves office. Though states across the political spectrum (such as Tennessee, Illinois and Oregon), and even cities, are experimenting with similar policies, Republicans were quick to indicate after last year’s proposal that they had no interest in creating a federal version of the program.

“Oh no, no, no, no, no,” Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) remarked last year when asked if he would support Obama’s plan.

Income-based repayment plans expanded under Obama administration

He also spoke of changes his Administration’s pushed for like expansion of income-based repayment plans.

“We have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We’ve already reduced student loan payments to ten percent of a borrower’s income,” said Obama.

While the move has resulted in lower monthly debt payments for millions of students, some experts have argued that the policy will actually worsen the student debt crisis in the long run. In an interview with GoodCall last year, University of Kansas professor Melinda Lewis argued that while income-base repayment provides financial relief in the short-term, any benefits will be wiped out over the long term as students pay down less of their debt and incur higher interest costs.

“When one defines the problem as default or delinquency, income-based repayment is your ace in the hole…And you can make borrowers feel a lot better,” said Lewis. “You’re seeing effects over the long term away from asset accumulation and towards debt maintenance. We’re pushing student debt out 15 years or longer, seeing people who are at the point where they need to think about their children’s higher education costs while trying to figure out how to purge the last vestiges of their own debt.”

Obama scarcely mentioned higher education issues in his final State of the Union address, and rarely offered specifics when he did. He said that he had “plenty” of new proposals to pitch, including “helping students learn to write computer code” but dedicated the majority of his speech to broader appeals to action on some of the biggest economic and international issues of the day.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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