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Obama pushes free community college tuition. Will that happen?

If enacted, President Obama’s community college proposal would be a sweeping change in US educational policy. Washington would pay three-quarters of the cost, while states would pick up a quarter.

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    President Obama boards Air Force One, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Tennessee where he will discuss new initiatives to help more Americans go to college and get the skills they need to succeed and his administration's efforts to create new, good paying manufacturing jobs.
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President Obama says he wants Americans to view college as they do high school – a necessary step up the education ladder that anyone can take if he or she wants. That’s why he’s proposing an ambitious federal-state partnership to boost tuition assistance for students at public community colleges, he says.

“What I’d like to see is the first two years of community college be free for everybody who’s willing to work for it,” Mr. Obama said in a video message posted to Facebook on Thursday.

If enacted, the president’s proposal would be a sweeping change in US educational policy. He’s set to release more details about the program in an appearance Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn.

But the “if enacted” part is a huge qualifier. Interested prospective students shouldn’t be pulling their book bags out of the bottom of the closet just yet.

The White House has yet to release a price tag for the program. It’s sure to be a big one: Community college tuition relief could save up to 9 million students some $3,800 each in tuition costs, officials say.

Washington would pay three-quarters of the cost, while states would pick up one-quarter for participating students. The students would have to attend school at least half-time and maintain at least a 2.5 percent grade point average.

The chances of the GOP-controlled Congress passing such a spending program may be about equal to those of Obama signing legislation to revoke the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.” In other words, zero.

“This doesn’t have a prayer of getting passed in this Congress, and [Obama] knows it,” writes right-leaning Ed Morrissey at Hot Air.

The tuition relief in no way would be “free,” Republicans argue. It would come from someone else in the form of taxes.

Thus Obama merely wants to position himself as a president who would provide Americans with benefits, if those mean Republicans would only let him, according to Mr. Morrissey.

“Get ready for more contrived stunts like this over the next two years,” he concludes.

Democrats say that the proposal is far from a “stunt.” They point out that Tennessee’s GOP Gov. Bill Haslam has pioneered a similar program for his own (red) state. Some 90 percent of this year’s graduating high school seniors in Tennessee have at least signed up for the program, though they're not all expected to use it in the end..

Even though tuition makes up a relatively small proportion of community college costs – foregone wages and living expenses are more costly – Obama’s proposal might lure middle- and low-income students to prepare for college and eventually enroll, writes Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

It could also encourage students to switch from more-expensive private schools to public ones, lowering their overall debt burden.

But a stampede to community colleges could strain their capacity beyond the ability of state education budgets to provide adequate infrastructure. And the program might encourage states to boost community college tuition in a bid to capture more federal bucks.

The plan “is certain to generate a great deal of discussion in Washington and around the country,” writes Mr. Kelchen.

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