Obama Plan: Free Community College for Those with 2.5 GPA

By Briana Vannozzi

Eligible students would be required to maintain a 2.5 GPA, attend school at least half-time and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program.

“A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class. It is the key to getting a good job that pays a good income and to provide you the security, where even if you don’t have the same job for three years. You’re so adaptable and you have a skill set and the capacity to learn new skills, it ensures you’re always employable,” said President Barack Obama.

“The message in and of itself has great value. I promise you there are people today thinking about going to college that were not thinking about it a week ago,” said New Jersey Council of County Colleges President Dr. Lawrence Nespoli.

Not surprisingly, the higher education community is thrilled by the national spotlight. Nespoli says the proposal suggests each state would have the option to participate, and New Jersey is well positioned to take advantage.

“The governor’s recent higher education bond provided several hundreds of millions of dollars to community colleges and other colleges to expand their capacity. That puts us in a good place in terms of responding to this kind of a call for action,” he said.

Nespoli says a program called NJ STARS is a smaller version of the president’s proposal and the Tennessee program for which it’s modeled. Here, students graduating in the top 15 percent of their high school class are eligible for free community college tuition.

“Many of our students are working, have family responsibilities so I think a program like this, the President is proposing would be particularly attractive to them because sometimes it’s very hard to get the extra money together if you’re supporting yourself, supporting children and you want to move ahead to college,” said Camden County College President Dr. Raymond Yannuzzi.

Little has been revealed about the funding and costs. Community college presidents like Yannuzzi are awaiting those details from the president’s State of the Union address. The White House has said the federal government will pick up 75 percent of the cost, while states would provide the rest.

For the 2013-2014 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees at a community college in New Jersey falls around $4,300 per year. It’s estimated of the 19 colleges and 400,000 students served, the cost to subsidize the program for full-timers would be almost $370 million over a 10-year period.

“We’ll have to see again what the details from the president if there are any incentives for states to put up that extra 25 percent. I haven’t seen anything to that effect. So what it really becomes, is a zero sum game unfortunately in New Jersey with our budget,” said New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities CEO Micahel Klein.

The Council for Community College tells me half of all students enrolled in higher ed around the country are in community college, and two-thirds of all Hispanics in a college program are enrolled there too. All eyes now turn back to Obama’s administration to see exactly how he plans to fulfill this promise.