Barack Obama announced a new piece of his education plan yesterday that essentially makes community college free for most Americans. But he’s not the only presidential candidate proposing on-the-house schooling. Both Chris Dodd and John Edwards unveiled their own plans months ago. So, just in case you don’t feel like wading through post- Spellings education policy, here’s a quick primer on what each plan offers:  

Obama ( PDF ): The centerpiece of his plan is a tax credit that pumps $4,000 into community college students’ wallets. The campaign claims that the credit, combined with financial aid, will make two-year colleges free for lower- and middle-class Americans. The policy would apply to all U.S. citizens in all states. The benefits do not extend to four-year students.

Dodd : He’s asking the states to meet him halfway to provide community college students a free ride. If he’s president, he’ll match any funding that a state assigns to helping students pay, which means if a state pays half of the tuition, so will he. But that raises some fairness issues. For example, if you’re living in Dodd’s native Connecticut and Gov. Jodi Rell doesn’t offer any funding—but Eliot Spitzer does next door in New York—you’re out of luck unless you move. Dodd’s plan doesn’t have similar benefits for four-year students, either.  

Edwards : Borrowing from an initiative that he says worked well in North Carolina while he was one of the state’s senators, John Edwards wants to offer a free year of tuition, fees, and books for students enrolled in public colleges and universities, as long as they’re working 10 hours a week. Not too shabby for out-of-state students at a place like University of Michigan, where the price tag is north of 30 grand. Edwards’ plan wouldn’t offer that same $30,000 to students enrolled at a community college. They’ll receive funding for their tuition amounts, which averages $2,300. Private-university students are left out of Edwards’ plan.

Obama’s plan is the surest thing for high-school grads thinking of going to a community college. While Dodd’s quasifederalist solution helps alleviate the costs on the federal government, it could create a nasty disparity as community colleges try to fix the socioeconomic divide. Edwards’ plan, meanwhile, is flawed by the difference in subsidy amounts. Obama’s is the fairest of them all.

Free education sounds great. But shouldn’t we be worried about the capacity of community colleges to handle added stress on their enrollments? Nearly 50 percent of America’s college students are enrolled in community colleges, and the schools continue to receive more and more students, thanks to higher costs at 4-year universities.

If everybody can go to school for free, there is a chance that such a large influx of students will decrease the quality of the education at these schools. That means the colleges will need more professors, more facilities, and more funding. Obama’s plan makes overtures to that effect, as may the other candidates’ once further details are released. Reformers, consider yourselves on notice.