WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama wants publicly funded community college available to all Americans, a sweeping proposal that would make higher education as accessible as a high school diploma to boost weak U.S. wages and skills for the modern workforce.
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The initiative's price tag has yet to be revealed, and it faces a Republican Congress averse to big new spending programs. Obama was promoting the idea in a visit Friday to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in a video message posted to Facebook Thursday evening.
"Put simply, what I'd like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it," Obama said in the video. He spoke seated on the front of his desk from his office aboard Air Force One, in the midst of a three-day tour to preview the agenda he'll be outlining in his Jan. 20 in the State of the Union address.
"It's something that we can accomplish, and it's something that will train our work force so that we can compete with anybody in the world," Obama said.
Administration officials on a conference call with reporters Thursday evening said the funding details would come out later with the president's budget next month. They estimated 9 million students could participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. That suggests an annual cost in the tens of billions of dollars.
Students would qualify if they attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program. Participating schools would have to meet certain academic requirements.
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The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program.
The idea got a chilly response from House Speaker John Boehner's office. "With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan," said spokesman Cory Fritz.
In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama proposed universal preschool, which Congress did not take up because of cost. Obama policy adviser Cecilia Munoz pointed out that even without federal action, many states are taking up the idea and expanding preschool.
And she pointed out that a Republican — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam — last year signed into law a pioneering scholarship program that provides free community and technical college tuition for two years. It has drawn 58,000 applicants, almost 90 percent of the state's high school seniors. Munoz said Obama's proposal was inspired by the popular Tennessee plan and a similar program in Chicago.
Tennessee Republican Rep. Diane Black said her state's plan, called Tennessee Promise, is paid mostly with lottery funds, while the federal funding source for Obama's plan is unclear and states will have to help pick up the tab. "Ultimately, any efforts to reboot Tennessee Promise as a one-size-fits-all nationwide approach will be met with heavy skepticism from Congress," Black said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary who is set to take over the Senate committee that oversees education, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But he planned to join Obama Friday aboard Air Force One, along with fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker.
Obama was being joined on the Tennessee visit by Vice President Joe Biden. They also planned to visit a manufacturing facility, Techmer PM in Clinton, Tennessee, to promote a second proposal to create a fund to help low-wage workers with high potential get training in growing fields like energy, information technology and advanced manufacturing.
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