This week President Obama first floated the balloon, then put out the message in his State of the Union address that he’d like to make college free. Well, that’s not quite accurate. He wants to make community college free for everyone across the country, with the caveat that they get at least a 2.5 GPA and have a commitment to get that associates degree or are working towards transferring to a 4-year school after 2 years.

Downing College, Cambridge
Steve Day via Compfight

It’s based on programs in the state of Tennessee and the city of Chicago, which means this isn’t just a Republican or Democratic plan. The ideas are two-fold. One, it would help many students reduce their college debt if they could knock out some of their early classes at community college; two, it would encourage more students to better prepare before they went to college because, for many, a 2-year degree is all they need for many professions.

Of course the cost is what anyone against this plan is looking at, and it wouldn’t be cheap. The President advocates that the federal government would pay 75% and the states would pick up the the rest, and it’s estimated to cost at least $60 billion a year. I’m not fully sure where that money would come from, but it seems that someone would be getting taxed for it.

By the way, this wouldn’t be a gimme. Students would still have to be approved based on their high school grades and of course some might have to change majors to get in, like I had to when I went to college. And if the qualification is that 2.5 GPA then there’s either some penalty for those who don’t achieve that grade or… well, I’m not sure what happens if they’re bounced. Does someone else get their spot if they get bounced in the first semester? Also, it would put more onus on community college to make sure students are taking the proper courses for a career track, no matter which degree they’re ultimately shooting for; I couldn’t tell you if they do that now.

I like this idea, although I’d love to know how it’s going to be paid for. As the title suggests, this isn’t really new, just a revisiting of something some states have had in the past. For years, all state colleges in California were free to residents for the longest time. In NYC, City College was free until 1976 when it couldn’t be supported anymore when the city was having major financial difficulties.

It’s also not unique to just the federal government this time around, as the governor of Arkansas stated in 2013 that it was his wish to attempt to make college free to its residents as long as they maintained that same magical 2.5 GPA.

Leaving the question of how it will be paid for, I have to say this would help way more than it would hurt. There would still be costs associated, such as buying books and paying to live in a dorm, but those costs would be way less without having to pay for school also. Right now there are many kind who have the grades to go but can’t get loans, and we’re losing some great minds who need some kind of degree to have opportunities they can’t get without one.

Also, more loan money would then be available for those students who decide to go straight to a traditional university, since many of those students can’t get loans based on some of the qualifications they and their families have to get beyond first.

As I said, I like the plan, and I’d love to see what many of you think. Still, the money thing is going to be the most important thing, and I’m not as worried about federal money as I am about the states being able to contribute.

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