Obama's preview of free community college plan draws praise and concern

Worries over funding and degree of federal intervention

On Thursday, President Obama previewed a proposal he will make on Friday for making community college tuition free for many students nationwide.

See details of the plan here

While more details of the plan are yet to be released, Obama's preview Thursday spurred a range of early reactions.

Republicans could be resistant

Obama's announcement quickly drew criticism from some Republicans.

A top Republican aide notes that Tennessee set up Tennessee Promise without intervention from the federal government, and other states could probably do the same. He expresses concern that federal intervention will actually make it more difficult for other states to follow Tennessee's example.

His sentiments were echoed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the committee on education, in an article published Thursday by the Knoxville News-Sentinel. In the op-ed, Alexander expresses doubt that federal attention would help states' efforts to make their community colleges free.

The plan could end up being expensive, so the Republican Congress is expected to be similarly resistant. Under the proposal, the federal government would pay 75% of community college tuition costs, while states would contribute the other 25%.

However, Alexander will be attending Friday's announcement event in Tennessee, indicating a measure of support for the proposal.

Higher ed leaders cautiously hopeful

Higher education industry leaders were divided on initial reactions.

Some community college experts were critical of Tennessee Promise. Its "last dollar" structure meant that more of the money went to higher income students who did not qualify for Pell Grants. The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) released a statement Friday that expressed similar concerns for Obama's plan. "Making tuition free for all students regardless of their income is a missed opportunity to focus resources on the students who need aid the most," says the group.

However, the American Council on Education (ACE) was tentatively positive. Molly Corbett Broad, president of ACE, says the proposal is a "potential game-changer," but points out that many questions remain about how the plan will work.

Furthermore, experts point out that the proposal's structure would encourage states to halt—and reverse—the trend of cutting funding to community colleges. Even TICAS praised this element of the plan in their statement, and the Association of Community College Trustees agreed with that sentiment. "Due to state disinvestment in higher education, any proposal that seeks to increase resources is greatly appreciated," reads their statement (Davis/Lewin, New York Times, 1/8; Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 1/9; Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/8).

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