Obama's free community college plan has $60 billion price tag

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 09, 2015 2:09 PM

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's proposal to offer two years of free community college tuition to any student who keeps up their grades would cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years, the White House said on Friday.

White House officials had initially declined to disclose projected costs of the program. Obama announced on Thursday that he would like to make two years of college free in a social media post that went viral.

The $60 billion price tag also became a hot topic on Twitter, with Republicans lambasting the White House for calling the program "free."

"Does President Obama's #FreeCommunityCollege include an accounting class? Or macroeconomics? Or even simple arithmetic?" Caleb Smith, a social media strategist for Republican Speaker John Boehner, asked in a post on Twitter.

Obama was due to elaborate on the plan on Friday during a visit to Tennessee, where the Republican-led state has started a free community college program.

The idea would require students to maintain a 2.5 grade point average and make progress to complete their program. Not all college programs would qualify.

The plan would need Republicans, who control Congress, to buy in, and also would require state governments to pick up 25 percent of the tab.

"With this Congress, what are the odds?" said Peter Capelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school.

Capelli said one reason behind Obama's suggestion seems to be to provoke a negative reaction from Republicans. "That's probably a very smart thing to do, politically," he said in an interview.

The Democratic National Committee used the announcement to highlight how potential Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential race have contributed to college funding cuts.

But even if Republicans signed on, the plan raises a host of practical problems for cash-strapped community colleges, Capelli said.

"It sounds like such a good idea until you ponder a little longer," he said, explaining that many colleges already have long wait lists and lack funding to expand programs to more students armed with tuition.

"It's going to put big burdens on the budgets of the local communities that fund them, and the states that fund them as well," Capelli said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland; Editing by Bill Trott and Alan Crosby)