On Friday, President Obama traveled to Tennessee to propose that community college be free for all Americans willing to work hard—just as elementary and secondary schooling has long been universally free to students. In today's economy, a high school degree no longer guarantees a middle-class income, so Obama properly wants to update the country's social contract to make two years of college, not just high school, something students receive at public expense. "This proposal would make two years of college the norm in the way that high school was the norm in the last century," White House domestic policy advisor Cecilia Munoz explained.
Most commentators have focused on scrutinizing the plan’s strategy, questioning its feasibility and its failure to address the root problems plaguing higher education. But they’re overlooking the truly revolutionary possibility that it would make two-year institutions more economically and racially integrated—something that should be applauded.
Community colleges, which educate nearly half of the nation’s 24 million college students, are already far more affordable than public four-year institutions. The annual tuition at public community colleges is $3,260, less than half the $8,890 average in-state tuition at public four- year institutions. Obama’s initiative would reduce community-college tuition costs to zero for students across the economic spectrum—a plan that would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years. (It is possible, though not confirmed, that Obama will reserve Pell Grant money to offset other costs, such as books, transportation, food, and housing.)