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Obama unveils free community college 'game changer'

President Obama on Friday announced his ambitious and sweeping proposal to offer a free two-year community college education to all Americans.
President Barack Obama arrives to speak about education during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tn, on Jan. 9, 2015. Obama has proposed making two years of community college free. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
President Barack Obama arrives to speak about education during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tn, on Jan. 9, 2015. Obama wants to make two years of community college free, a proposal he said on Thursday he would flesh out in his State of the Union speech later this month.

President Barack Obama announced perhaps his most sweeping secondary education proposal ever on Friday, saying that he planned to present Congress with an ambitious plan that would make a two-year community college education free for all Americans.

"I'm announcing an ambitious new plan to bring down the cost of college tuition in America,” Obama said during a speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn. “I want to bring it down to zero."

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Calling community colleges an “essential pathway to the middle class,” the president said that he would send his plan to Congress in the coming weeks and that the issue of offering a quality education to all Americans is non-partisan.

"Higher education shouldn’t be a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It's an American issue," he added.

Obama began his speech on Friday afternoon by addressing the terrorist attacks this week in France, calling the country “our oldest ally.”

"I want the people of France to know that the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow," he said.

The president initially unveiled his free community college plan, called America’s College Promise, on Thursday in a video posted to Facebook. Obama said that to qualify for the program students must attend community college at least half-time and maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average.

According to the White House, the proposal would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years. 

In a press call on Thursday, White House policy director Cecilia Munoz said the proposal is tantamount to earlier ambitious American education shifts that changed the landscape of the nation.

“This is the moment that is equivalent to the moment that we made high school universal,” Munoz said. 

According to the White House, Obama’s proposal could benefit about 9 million students a year and save a full-time community college student an average of $3,800 a year in tuition.

In his speech, President Obama said that the program could help non-traditional students, working parents and those unable to afford sometimes hefty 4-year degree programs. He said it could also help women and minorities gain access to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sectors, which they’ve historically been underrepresented.

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"It can be a game changer," said the president. "Students who started at community colleges during those two years and then go on to a four year institution, they essentially get half of their bachelors degree free."

President Obama allowed that the plan comes with certain responsibilities for students, schools and states.

The federal government would cover about three-quarters of the cost of qualified students two-year education and that the remainder would be picked up by states that choose to participate. In addition, participating community colleges would be required to offer credits that are transferable to public four-year colleges.

“There are no free rides in America,” Obama said. “You’re going to have to earn it.”

America’s Promise is based on a successful program in Tennessee that offers free community college for qualified state students. Obama applauded Tennessee Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who traveled with the president to their home state for the announcement. When asked by a reporter if he supported Obama’s proposal, Corker laughed.

While Corker praised the state model that the White House has modeled its proposal on, he said that "you're always better off letting states mimic each other" rather than enacting another federal program.

Schultz dismissed criticism from Republicans that it would be too much of a top-down, federalized program, saying the success seen in Tennessee should be available to people in all 50 states.

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Obama’s ambitious free community college plan comes as the administration touts a recent uptick in job growth, low gas prices and a relatively high presidential approval rating. President Obama noted that high school dropout and graduation rates are at all-time lows and highs and that his administration is working on bringing high-speed broadband to 99% of America’s students within the next four years.

The free-education proposal is the latest in a year-long series of education efforts made by the Obama administration aimed at low-income and non-traditional students as well as women and minority youth.

Last January the president and first lady Michelle Obama hosted a gathering of university presidents, business and non-profit leaders a the White House and affirmed his goal of restoring the U.S. as the world’s leader in producing college graduates by 2020.

The U.S. at the time of Obama’s assertion was ranked 14th behind Israel, Belgium and France and well behind the world’s leaders in graduations college students -- Korea, Japan and Canada.

Obama has successfully staved off Republican attempts to cut student aid programs and has used executive orders to rais the maximum award for Pell Grants to $5,635 to student loan reform, capping student loan rates and expanding education tax cuts.

On Thursday, Obama said the future success of America was dependent on how it boosts its educational opportunities of its citizens.

"In America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few. It shouldn’t matter what our name is, or what we look like, or what family we were born into,” he said, “what matters is effort and merit."

Obama was joined in Knoxville by Vice President Joe Biden, who said before introducing the president to the stage that a 12-year high school education today “is not enough any more than 8 years was enough in 1919.”