President Barack Obama has announced a proposal to provide free community college education to any student with a 2.5 GPA. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

As someone considering a career in higher education, it’s hard for me to say that millions of dollars in funding (and likely new jobs) for community colleges isn’t the best thing. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

Let’s first consider some implications that come along with such sweeping reform. First, the biggie: where in the world will this money come from? Many will answer: China, duh!

Everyone is well aware of the lackluster financial situation of the federal budget. Yet the president’s plan would cost $6 billion per year and $60 billion over 10 years.

The plan would also require states to opt-in to the program and provide 25 percent of the funding. Let’s stop here.

Alabama has already rejected an “opt-in” deal where the federal government has offered to pay: 100 percent of the costs for Medicaid expansion for the first three years, and 90 percent after that. Comparatively, it’s hard to imagine Alabama opting into the college plan, if it were to pass Congress.

But what if Alabama did opt in? What would it mean for education in Alabama? First off, it would mean thousands of Alabamians would have a shot at higher education that they never would have before.

On the other hand, the program would require states that opt in to “meet certain academic requirements.” Translation: “Schools who take the money will be subject to more federal academic regulations.”

This ambiguity can make a higher education professional cringe. As a condition, I would prefer to see those “certain requirements” spelled out before my school or state signed its collegiate programs over carte blanche.

The plan is modeled after a similar program signed into law by the State of Tennessee last year. In my State and Local Politics course (go back to sophomore year), we studied a theory that referred to states and localities as “laboratories of democracy.”

In this case, Tennessee is the laboratory. Free college education the experiment. With the Tennessee program being implemented in 2015, and no empirical evidence of success yet determined, some are concerned it’s a bit soon to be duplicating the experiment nationwide.

All these concerns aside, President Obama’s proposal faces an uphill battle in Congress – now completely controlled by Republicans. With an overwhelming conservative mandate from the 2014 midterm election, it’s doubtful many GOP members will support such a vast new spending measure.

Though it may not pass Congress, the plan is generating lots of buzz in the media, on campus and in the public.

The lasting effect of President Obama’s proposal may not be that community college becomes immediately free for thousands of Americans.

It may be that free higher education becomes a part of the discussion for millions of Americans. And that can be just as powerful as any bill in Congress.

Brett Johnson
Political Columnist

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