President Barack Obama discussed his recently revealed plan to guarantee two free years of community college for all qualifying students along with new methods of student loan relief during the State of the Union address Tuesday night.

“[Middle class economics] is preparing working Americans to work for higher wages.” White House Deputy Press Secretary Jennifer Friedman said Wednesday in a conference call with college media outlets. “Some of the proposals … that the president has been rolling out [are] making two years of community college free for responsible students, making student loans more affordable, partnering with businesses to talk about on-the-job training and apprenticeship opportunities.”

The primary proposal from the president to provide college tuition relief involved simplifying the tax code. White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz explained that the current system of college tax incentives was complex, preventing families from fully taking advantage of the system.

“There is a whole host of different ways to pay for college and different ways to get federal support in paying for college. And it ends up being bewildering and complex. … So the president is proposing to consolidate these systems,” Muñoz said. “The idea is to make sure that our system works and is accessible.”

According to Muñoz, the Government Accountability Office found that 27 percent of families who claimed a tax credit should have claimed a different one, while another 14 percent did not claim a benefit despite being eligible. The White House estimates that the plan would cut taxes for around 8.5 million students and provide up to $2,500 of assistance yearly.

Obama also announced his community college program, which would provide tuition-free classes to students who can maintain a 2.5 grade point average and are either making progress towards a technical degree or working towards transferring to a four-year institution.

Muñoz explained that the plan would improve the United States work force, citing that two-thirds of job openings require technical skills and post-secondary education experience.
“The proposal to make community college free for every responsible student is really based on the notion that, 100 years ago, when we made high school free and universal, it created the best-educated workforce in the world here in the United States and that related to how we led the world economically in the 20th century.” Muñoz said.

McCourt School of Public Policy Professor E.J. Dionne applauded the plan in his biweekly column for The Washington Post, praising community colleges as “central to restoring social and economic mobility,” referencing research by MSPP Professor of public policy Harry Holzer that pointed to the need for a college degree to gain a competitive wage.

However, Holzer was more critical of the plan. While he liked the minimum GPA requirement and the emphasis on either further education or employment, he questioned whether the monetary resources could be better used to support students.

“Most of the money will not go to the most needy people who already have Pell grants,” Holzer said. “Most of the money will go to middle class people who could maybe afford this expenditure already.”

He also worried that it would affect the educational outcomes of students would potentially choose to attend community colleges first instead of four-year colleges, noting a discrepancy between four-year and community college education.

“I worry that if community college is free and four year schools are not free… people who could go to good four-year schools will now start at community college and they won’t do as well,” Holzer said. “They won’t get the same level of guidance, the same level of instruction, so it could end up hurting educational outcomes for the people it’s trying to help.”

Muñoz disagreed, claiming that more students would have the opportunity to receive a four-year degree through the program.

“In order to qualify for free tuition, you have to show that you’re in a program to transfer to a four-year institution or an occupational program with a really good track record,” Muñoz said. “We think more people will be getting credits toward a four-year degree and then more people will be getting a four-year degree.”

Holzer noted that the program will likely have a marginal impact on private universities like Georgetown, primarily affecting second-tier state universities, who might see students choose to attend community colleges instead.

“People would not stop going to Georgetown to go to community college,” Holzer said. “What I imagine would happen would be people who would otherwise go to other state colleges, not the flagship schools but the second-tier schools, will now instead start at community colleges so they’re the ones that I would more worry about, not so much the ‘Georgetowns.’”

Beyond his concerns about the program itself, Holzer remained skeptical about the possibility of the program being implemented on the federal level but saw the potential for states.

“The Republicans control Congress, and most of them have not reacted really well to this idea,” Holzer said. “Individual states might choose to go that way. … You can compare what happens to the states that do this in comparison to the states that don’t and test out my hypothesis.”

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