Obama’s latest proposal may be a promising step forward for higher education

Last week, President Barack Obama announced a plan, based in part on one forged by Tennessee Republicans, to cover the community college tuition of anyone who can keep up their grades and show steady progress toward a degree or ability to transfer to a four-year university.

That’s not to say that the parties will run hand-in-hand across the land dropping money bags for all to scoop up, however. The plan, whose implementation depends on the approval of both the federal and state governments, won’t sail through Congress and the state legislatures with their new Republican majorities. That said, the ramifications of Obama’s plan, which will be fleshed out in fuller detail in his State of the Union Address, could be felt by students, community colleges and universities alike.

First and foremost, the plan could help students, saddled with mounting levels of student loan debt, to defray some of the costs associated with college by allowing them to take their first two years of classes for free before transferring to a four-year university. Because tuition costs and fees have risen so much in recent years, the plan could save transfer students upwards of $10,000, even in states where in-state tuition is the cheapest. The White House estimates that the change, if enacted, could save the average full-time community college student, who may or may not be planning to transfer, $3,800 a year in tuition. 

Second, the move could lighten the load on university faculty and staff to provide services for growing student bodies and expectations. As the Pew Research Center has found, college enrollment showed a net increase over the past 20 years among 18- to 24-year-olds in the four major racial and ethnic groups in this country: Asian, white, black and Hispanic. However, this rise in college attendance demands more of universities in the form of classes taught and housing offered, to name but two services offered by traditional four-year universities. While universities certainly don’t want to lose students, shifting more of the burden onto community colleges could allow them to focus on the traditional skills they were meant to cultivate.

Of course, this will require buy-in from not just the governmental entities involved, but also the college-going public (or their parents), who will have to change their higher education habits enough that community colleges and four-year universities would significantly change their offerings.

And there’s reason to be optimistic that they will do so. With a college degree an increasing necessity for a middle-class life, high school students who may not have been considering matriculating may finally be given that extra incentive to enroll. We hope the plan comes to fruition so they can do so.