January 9, 2015 / 7:09 PM / 3 years ago

Obama pushes $60 billion plan for free community college

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama promoted a proposal to offer two years of free community college tuition to students on Friday but the plan and its $60 billion pricetag over 10 years immediately faced skepticism from Republican lawmakers.

Obama floated the education idea on the third and final day of a tour to promote agenda items being prepared for his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, a speech that will be his first to the U.S. Congress since Republicans won the Senate in November elections.

Obama has maintained a sunny mood throughout the tour, promoting the prospect of bipartisan harmony and declining to attack Republicans, in what amounts to an early attempt to try find political harmony in Washington.

Obama announced on Thursday that he would like to make two years of college free in a social media post that went viral. But White House officials had not disclosed the projected costs of the plan until Friday.

The $60 billion price tag also became a hot topic on Twitter, with Republicans lambasting the White House for calling the program “free.”

“Does President Obama’s #FreeCommunityCollege include an accounting class? Or macroeconomics? Or even simple arithmetic?” Caleb Smith, a social media strategist for Republican Speaker John Boehner, asked in a post on Twitter.

Obama elaborated on the plan on Friday during a visit to Tennessee, where the Republican-led state has started a free community college program.

The idea would require students to maintain a 2.5 grade point average and make progress to complete their program. Not all college programs would qualify.

The plan would need Republicans, who control Congress, to buy in, and also would require state governments to pick up 25 percent of the tab.

“With this Congress, what are the odds?” said Peter Capelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school.

Obama brought with him to Tennessee two senators from the state, Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who both praised the Tennessee program that was an inspiration for the White House effort, but said they do not think a big federal program is the best way to extend community college to more students.

Corker said he said he favored state and local efforts. “You’re always better off letting states mimic each other,” he said.

The Democratic National Committee used the announcement to highlight how potential Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential race have contributed to college funding cuts.

But even if Republicans signed on, the plan raises a host of practical problems for cash-strapped community colleges, Capelli said.

“It sounds like such a good idea until you ponder a little longer,” he said, explaining that many colleges already have long wait lists and lack funding to expand programs to more students armed with tuition.

Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott, Alan Crosby and Chizu Nomiyama

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