President Obama wants to provide free tuition at community colleges, a proposal that could benefit as many as 9 million students, according to a White House outline of the plan released Thursday.
But there's one big caveat in the proposal: There isn't plan to fund it, other than to ask Congress for the money.
Without that crucial piece of the program, which would be available to students as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA, the idea is little more than a pipe dream. It resembles Obama's proposal in 2013 for a universal pre-k program for 4-year-olds. To provide free public pre-k for low-income families alone would cost $75 billion over 10 years, according to some analyses. Early-education lobbyists are struggling to figure out how to persuade lawmakers to pony up for that small part of a larger pre-k proposal. (A cigarette tax is among the items they are bandying about.)
When it comes to community colleges, the lobbyists haven't even gotten that far. Yet Obama is hoping to capitalize on a campaign he began in his first term to expand higher education for people who don't have easy access to four-year universities. Community colleges are increasingly becoming an affordable way for a student to attain the first half of a bachelor's degree before transferring to a four-year university. College tuition and student debt have proven to be powerful campaign tools, as Massachusetts' Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has illustrated in her effort to reduce student-loan interest rates.