Obama’s Free Community College Program Has a Catch

Obama’s “I’m hiding something in the fine print” face.  


When the White House first pitched its plan to make community college tuition free last month, it seemed to suggest the program would be available to anybody. In a fact sheet, the administration said the goal was to make “two years of college as free and universal as high school.” If a student attended at least half time and maintained a 2.5 GPA, he would pay zero for class. Full stop. When President Obama talked up the idea during a speech in Tennessee, he put it this way:

And the concept is simple: America’s College Promise will make two years of community college free to responsible students who are willing to work for it. Now, I want to underscore that last clause—everybody who’s working hard for it. There are no free rides in America. You would have to earn it. Students would have to do their part by keeping their grades up. Colleges would have to do their part by offering high-quality academics and helping students actually graduate. States would have to do their part too. This isn’t a blank check. It’s not a free lunch. But for those willing to do the work, and for states and local communities that want to be a part of this, it can be a game-changer.

Simple enough, right? Put in the effort, get a free education. Well, it turns out there’s some fine print. According to the budget documents released by the White House today, students from families that earn more than $200,000 per year would not be eligible for free tuition. Here’s the key text (bold’s mine):

Student Responsibility: Students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program would have their tuition eliminated. The program would eliminate tuition and fees for all eligible students for a maximum of 4 years. Students with AGI $200,000 and above would not be eligible.

Capping eligibility based on income is the exact opposite of creating a universal program, and in this case, it makes very, very little sense to me as a political or policy decision. Politically, it kills some of the program’s appeal to upper-middle-class voters (who, as we all know, tend to get what they want out of government). Meanwhile, as Richard Kahlenberg wrote at the Atlantic, one of the attractive aspects of Obama’s plan was that it might lure more affluent students to community colleges, helping to make the schools more socio-economically diverse, and perhaps convincing legislators to fund them more generously (again, what the upper middle class wants, the upper middle class gets). Beyond that, I cannot imagine that excluding well-off students would actually save much money. As it stands right now, the Obama plan is cheap, costing only $60.3 billion over 10 years for the feds. And according to the Department of Education, just 2.7 percent of dependent community college students have parents who earn $200,000 or more. Presumably, they make up a somewhat larger share of those with at least a 2.5 GPA, but in the end, we’re not talking about an enormous group of kids. Even if their share were to double thanks to the promise of a free education (which, frankly, seems unlikely to me), the added cost seems like it would be small compared with the benefit of opening up free college to all.