By Chris Powers – Special Projects/Layout Editor
President Barack Obama proposed expanding the nation’s education system to include free community college for two years as long as students meet some minimum guidelines.
During his State of the Union address last week, Obama promised to send Congress “a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.” He compared it to free high school and the GI Bill, which allows veterans to attend college for free or low-cost. His reason was that, in the next decade, “two in three job openings will require some higher education.”
Obama’s plan would make two years of community college free to anyone willing to maintain a 2.5 GPA and remain enrolled at least half-time (6 credits minimum). Colleges would have to offer courses that students can easily to transfer to four-year colleges and/or train students in high-demand skill areas. The federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost, with the rest to be paid for by the states.
“Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt,” Obama said.
The entire plan is, of course, contingent on whether or not Republican lawmakers, who control both houses of Congress after last year’s elections, will sign off on the plan.
One possible sticking point for the GOP is that the White House has not explained precisely how the federal and state governments would cover the approximately $60 billion over 10 years. Also unclear is what impact a likely increase in enrollment would mean for the nation’s more than 1,000 community colleges including Grand Rapids Community College.
GRCC students supported Obama’s proposal, including 19-year-old Devin Vickel of Byron Center.
“I could pursue what I wanted to pursue in my life while getting the education that I needed to support that,” Vickel said. “It would be easier to do that if I was not (worrying about tuition).”
GRCC administrators also seemed to welcome the opportunities that would come with the possible new policy regardless of the stress of increased enrollment.
GRCC President Steven Ender is aware of students’ difficulties when trying to pay for education.
“The concept of students not having to pay for their first two years of college is certainly very attractive to me because I know most of our students need some kind of funding to support them,” Ender said. “I also know that many students have to start and stop (their education) again and it takes them a long time to finish.”
Laurie Chesley, GRCC’s new provost, was delighted to hear about the policy but seemed unsure whether it would pass through Capitol Hill.
“I hope that it is one in a series of revolutionary ideas about higher education,” Chesley said. “If our Congress can pass this legislation, (if) they can really make this happen, it will be historic.”
If the plan is enacted, Chesley believes it will only add to our campus environment.
“I like to think that it would bring even more diversity of experience and even more diversity of thought to the campus,” Chesley said. “I absolutely think it would increase our numbers and therefore would increase the variety of ideas and experience that come to this campus and participate in the dialogues that we have in the classroom.”
Obama will work in the coming months to promote his plan, focusing on lowering student debt.
“I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” Obama said. “And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.”
Jacquelyn Zeman, Chief Web Editor, contributed to this article.