, The BBC
The US community college system, which includes 1,600 campuses across the country, provides two-year associate degrees and often allows students to apply academic credits toward bachelor’s degrees at traditional four-year US universities.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more than 12.8 million Americans studied at community colleges in 2012, with 7.7 million taking courses for credit toward a degree.
The White House says if the plan were adopted by all 50 states – which would be required to fund 25% of the costs, while the federal government shoulders the rest – it would save the average community college enrollee $3,800 [£2,500] in tuition per year and cover about 9 million students.
“It’s something that we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so we can compete with anybody in the world,” the president said.
A White House official said the plan would cost $60b [£40bn] over 10 years – and, as Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s spokesperson quickly pointed out, the president did not propose how to come up with the funds.
“With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” Cory Fritz said in a press statement.
Gary Stix of Scientific American says that the proposal is an “idea whose time has come”.
“Free two-year colleges would serve as a concrete measure directed toward giving people the skills for better jobs – many of them in the science and technology arena,” he writes. “It would also be a small step to help narrow economic disparities, an issue that consumes so much political and academic debate.”
The New York Times’s David Leonhardt says the potential impact of the proposal is “huge”.
Despite Mr Fritz’s scepticism, the plan may be able to garner some bipartisan support. It’s based on a Tennessee programme devised by Republican Governor Bill Haslam, who will join the president and the state’s two Republican senators when Mr Obama speaks about the proposal in Tennessee on Friday.
“Battles over healthcare, immigration, gun control and other issues may attract more attention,” he writes. “But both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy.”
“The unemployment rate for college graduates is far lower than for everyone else. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is at a record high. The countries that have reversed history and made more educational progress in recent years than the United States have also experienced faster income growth. In a globalised, high-tech economy, education – the process by which people learn new skills – has a return on investment like nothing else.”