As you may have recently heard, President Obama has proposed a new plan to help students fund at least the first 2 years of their education. The proposal is based on a program already in action in Tennessee. Basically, if students can maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher, the state of Tennessee guarantees up to 2 years of tuition-free classes in community colleges.

As this program in Tennessee and the HOPE scholarship in Georgia (in which in-state students maintaining a 3.0 GPA or higher can attend 4-year colleges with no tuition) have proven, a college education does not have to saddle students with thousands upon thousands of dollars in debts. The plan seems solid, but many have questions for the president about how his proposal will work, who will pay for the schools to operate, what it will mean for 4-year colleges and universities and more.

How Will Schools Be Paid?

Unlike the HOPE program in Georgia, which is paid for by the state lottery, President Obama proposes that the federal government will cover 75% of tuition costs, while states will be responsible for the remaining 25%. The states will also be responsible for adopting a few specific reforms, which will be outlined by the White House.

These reforms will include more support and advisement for students on community college campuses, and they call for bringing high school and college curricula closer into line so that students are better prepared to transition into their first 2 years of college after graduating from high school. Basically, in the president’s own words, in reference to the program in Tennessee, “I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” (PBS 2015).

With at least 2 years of free post-secondary education, backers of the plan hope that young people entering the workforce will be better prepared, with less burden of debt and more motivation. They believe that this could be a big step toward closing the United States’ seemingly ever-increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor and reestablishing a middle class by increasing education and eliminating debt.

Who Benefits From This Change?

While President Obama and many backers of the proposal to make the first 2 years of community college free for all students have been focusing on graduating high school seniors, these students are not the only ones who will benefit. In a recent news piece for US News, the University of Texas – Austin’s director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, Evelyn Waiwaiole noted the benefits this program will have for working class adults (US News 2015).

“The average age at a community college,” Waiwaiole points out, “is 28. It is not 18 or 19 […] To say we’re going to go in and just serve high school students would be a disservice to many, if not most, of the students,” (US News 2015). With the inclusion of “nontraditional” adult students and part-time students, this piece of education reform will see a great deal of benefits for a lot more people.

Think of the wage and experience gap between people who’ve only had the opportunity to complete high school and those who’ve completed a full 4-year degree. With this program, there will be an actual middle ground.

People attending community colleges to receive certificates or associate’s’ degrees will be able to get the benefits of education without taking on mountains of debt. They also won’t have to quit their jobs to receive benefits, meaning they’ll still be able to provide for themselves and their families while they go to night school and/or attend classes part-time.

Taking a Load Off of 4-Year College Debt

Many students already complete their first 2 years of college courses at community colleges in order to cut down on their debts. Most core classes are the same, and credits can be transferred into 4-year institutions. So, in addition to allowing lower-income, working class people to achieve educations without massive burdens of debt, this program will also allow anyone seeking further education to enter into their third year of post-secondary education debt-free.

Every year, students have to quit college or university because they’ve run out of federal assistance through FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This is due, in large part, to the fact that a lot of 18 and 19 year-old kids don’t know exactly what major or what direction they want to take when they start college.

Then, a year or two into their studies, they discover that they want to change majors or institutions, and suddenly they’re set back. Unfortunately, their debts aren’t set back with them, and they blow through their financial aid, incurring more debt and potentially missing the opportunity to finish college. They won’t miss the opportunity to take on that debt, though, as those loans have to be paid back, no matter what you do after college.

Overall Benefits – Lower Debts and Higher Education Rates

Take away 2 years of those debts from every student in the United States who chooses a community college. Suddenly, with two years of free community college classes, students have a head start on funding the rest of their college careers. Furthermore, since the program is open to all students, single mothers and other adults going back to school will have better chances of finding higher earning jobs to help advance their careers and take care of themselves and their families.

Among the reforms for community colleges, the White House has also stipulated that more occupational training programs should be included. Graduates from these programs – whether they’re 18, 28, 38, or older – will be better prepared to enter their new professions with the knowledge and confidence to succeed (WhiteHouse.gov 2015). It’s an exciting time to be a student or potential student in the United States, as all kinds of avenues are about to open up to those who are college-bound, whether they’re just graduating from high school or they’ve been out of school for many years and are just now coming back.

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