President Obama unveiled the America’s College Promise Proposal on Friday. The proposal seeks to make two years of community college free for students who maintain minimum requirements in qualifying academic programs. Although the White House provided a general framework, several fundamental questions remain about the feasibility of implementing such a program in the U.S. higher education system.

The framework

  • Dollars and cents. Under the proposal, the federal government would partner with participating states to pay for two years of attending community college. The federal government would pay ¾ of the tuition, and the participating states would pay the remaining ¼ of the tuition.
  • Student responsibility. To qualify for free tuition, students would be required to attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make “steady” progress toward completing an approved program.
  • Community college responsibility. Community colleges would be required to “offer programs that either (1) are academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities… or (2) are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers.” Community colleges would also be required to develop “evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.” The exact requirements of the institutional reforms have yet to be defined.

The White House’s complete fact sheet released Jan. 9, 2015, can be read here: Fact Sheet.

Fundamental questions

  • Is the proposal politically possible?

President Obama will need support from Congress before the proposal can become law. Though almost all politicians tie themselves to supporting education, GOP leadership has already expressed skepticism about the proposal. It appears the White House has its work cut out for it, and any plan passed will bear the marks of extended negotiation and compromise.

  • Is the proposal practically possible?

Impact on community colleges. Free tuition will undoubtedly increase enrollment at community colleges—bringing students who would not otherwise have attended college as well as those who would have attended other institutions but for the program. A shifting student demographic will likely bring a new set of academic programming and support needs. Community colleges may need to improve facilities, expand faculty, and expand administration to meet the increased demand.

Impact on four-year institutions. Traditional institutions are likely to see a drop in freshman and sophomore enrollment. Schools will see a corresponding drop in tuition dollars, but also in the demand for programming and support for these students. The potential surge of transfer students following the first several years of the proposal may also create administrative challenges, particularly in areas such as transfer credits and mapping plans for graduation.

What this means for you

Determine the potential impact of free community college on your college or university. Even if the proposal is never implemented, it highlights recent calls for improved access to higher education, ease of credit transfer, and lower tuition costs. Such issues should be considered when discussing the long-term strategic direction of your institution.