Mixed Response to Obama’s ‘Free’ Community College Plan

President Barack Obama unveiled a proposal to provide two years of community college tuition-free to “responsible students” Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville.

The plan, called “America’s College Promise,” is inspired in part by Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise” and Rahm Emanuel’s “Chicago Star Scholarship.”

“A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class,” Obama said. “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 30 years, you’re so adaptable, and you have a skill set and the capacity to learn new skills, it ensures you’re always employable.”

The College Promise initiative creates a “partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students,” and also promote “key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college,” according to a White House fact sheet.

The main thrust of this idea is a proposal to eliminate the tuition for community college students who “attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program,” according to the official release. This will enable students to earn a two-year degree or half of the academic credit needed for a four-year degree.

Technical training programs across the country would also be expanded.

“I want to make it free,” Obama said in Knoxville Friday. “Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it., because in America, quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few.” Obama emphasized that students had to be willing to work hard if they wanted to maintain the benefit. “There are no free rides in America, you would have to earn it,” he said.

Community colleges are all about “the idea that no one with drive and discipline should be left out of opportunity,” Obama said. “And certainly that nobody with that drive and discipline should be denied a college education just because they don’t have the money.”

Federal dollars would fund 75 percent of the program, and the states would be expected to produce the remaining funds. Community Colleges would also be expected to adopt reforms to improve student outcomes.

“Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today,” Obama said.

A proposal for the free community college plan will be sent to congress in a few weeks, he said. “I hope that Congress will come together to support it,” because it’s not a partisan issue, but “an American issue.”

No details have been given as to the plan’s expected cost. However, with official estimates that the program will affect around 9 million students if all states participate, and an average tuition savings of $3,800 a year for full-time students, the Tennessean has estimated the program’s cost could top $34 billion a year.

The president lauded Tennessee’s “incredible strides” in improving education, including “Tennessee Promise” — the inspiration for the name of Obama’s program — which he said was the first time “in decades” a state had offered free community college to students.

But one of the Volunteer State’s Democratic U.S. representatives– Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis — has been critical of Haslam’s plan that “siphons” funds from the HOPE Scholarship, which is funded by the Tennessee Lottery. “The people who mostly benefit from his plan are people who didn’t make the grades in high school and are higher than the average income. That’s not exactly who you should be looking to benefit in society, the low-achievers and the affluent. I think it’s just a total sham,” Cohen said in an interview with the Murfreesboro Post in October.

In an official statement Friday, Cohen said Obama’s plan was more akin to his HOPE Scholarship program than it was to the “Tennessee Promise,” which is “a last-dollar scholarship without standards” to help students attain and maintain assistance. According to Cohen, Obama’s “highlighting” of an “unproven” last-dollar scholarship program rather than the proven HOPE Lottery program, meant “the president is looking at the hole and not the donut.”

Responses to Obama’s free community college plan from various Tennessee political quarters are below:

 Statement from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; January 9, 2015:

“The president recognizes that good things are happening in Tennessee.  We are proud of the Tennessee Promise.  It is changing the culture of expectations in Tennessee by encouraging more students to pursue a certificate or degree beyond high school.  The Tennessee Promise is focused not just on access but success in terms of making certain that students actually attain their degree.  We think having a mentor available for the students is an important part of achieving that success.

“Regarding the specifics of the president’s plan, we look forward to seeing more details in the coming days about the cost of the program and how it will be covered.”

Statement from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; January 9, 2015:

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today released the following statement on President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal:

“The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done. Then, instead of creating a new federal program, the federal government can help in two ways. First, reduce federal paperwork for the ridiculous 108-question student aid application  form which discourages 2 million Americans from applying for federal Pell grants that are already available to help pay community college tuition. Every Tennessee Promise applicant has to fill out this form. Second, pay for the millions of new Pell grants that will be awarded if other states emulate Tennessee Promise and if Congress reduces federal paperwork and allows students to use Pell grants year-round.

“The reason Tennessee can afford Tennessee Promise is that 56 percent of our state’s community college students already have a federal Pell grant, which averages $3,300, to help pay for the average $3,800-per-year tuition. The state pays the difference–$500 on average. Nationally, in 16 states, the average Pell grant pays for the typical student’s entire community college tuition.”

Alexander is chairman of the Senate education committee.

Statement from U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. 01; January 9, 2015:

Today, Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) released the following statement after President Obama announced a proposal to make community college free for some students:

“It’s disappointing President announced yet another new government program with no clear plan to pay for it during his visit to Tennessee. The president was right to hold up Governor Haslam’s Tennessee Promise plan as an effective way to prioritize higher education, but a better way to expand access to college would be to encourage states to follow Tennessee’s example and find state-based solutions that work for their citizens, not create another expensive, one-size-fits-all federal program.”

Rep. Roe serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee where he chairs the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions.

Statement from U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. 02; January 9, 2015:

Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.) released the following statement Friday regarding President Obama’s education announcement in Knoxville.

The federal government is in terrible financial shape, and we simply cannot afford this program nationwide with a current debt of more than $18 trillion and very high yearly deficits.  The State of Tennessee, however, is in good financial shape and can support such a program on its own.

I am also worried this proposal could result in the end of incentives for community colleges to hold down costs for all students.  Historically, whenever the federal government subsidies anything, the costs explode.  When the federal student loan program was created, schools began raising tuition rates and fees much more than the rate of inflation each year.

The only way to get college costs down for everyone is to reduce federal loans at colleges and universities that do not hold their tuition increases to the rate of inflation or less.

Statement from U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. 03; January 9, 2015:

Today, President Obama arrived in Tennessee to make an announcement regarding the launch of two new initiatives. After the President’s announcement, Rep. Fleischmann made the following statement.

“Tennessee has an exceptional business climate, and thanks to local workforce development efforts and public-private partnerships, manufacturing is growing in East Tennessee. We are fortunate to be home to some great educational institutions, research facilities, and amazing companies. This outstanding work has garnered recognition from the Department of Energy, which, in conjunction with universities and non-profits, has announced the launch of the new Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Advanced Composites. I am glad the President took the time today to come see all that is happening in East Tennessee. I am hopeful he will work with the new Congress to help businesses continue to grow through mechanisms like this public-private partnership.”

Statement from U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. 06; January 9, 2015:

Congressman Diane Black (R-TN-06) released the below statement on President Obama’s proposal to offer students free tuition for the first two years of community college. The concept is based on the “Tennessee Promise” initiative.

“As a first generation college graduate and a former educator, I desire to see every student have an opportunity to pursue higher education,” said Congressman Diane Black. “But the President must understand that the solutions we have adopted in our state, like Tennessee Promise, work because they are done the Tennessee way, not the Washington way. Tennessee Promise is a state-led initiative designed to meet the unique needs of our students. The program is paid for by a lottery reserve fund that will allow us to continue balancing our budget each year and will not result in added costs to hardworking taxpayers. By contrast, the President’s proposal appears to be a top-down federal program that will ask already cash-strapped states to help pick up the tab.”

Rep. Black added, “While the White House says that three quarters of the program would be paid for with federal funding, I have yet to hear what offsets, if any, would be proposed to ensure Americans are not saddled with greater debt and deficits as a result. Will the President offer proposals to make his plan budget-neutral, or will he attempt to charge it to the credit card? Ultimately, any efforts to reboot Tennessee Promise as a one-size-fits-all nationwide approach will be met with heavy skepticism from Congress.”


Signed into law in May 2014, the Tennessee Promise program offers to pay the first two years of community college or technical college tuition for high school graduates in the state of Tennessee. The program does not cover tuition costs for returning adults. Tennessee Promise matches participating students with a mentor to help navigate the college admissions process and requires participants to maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service per term enrolled. Tennessee Promise protects taxpayers from being left on the hook for the cost of the program by including language authorizing the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) to make adjustments to award amounts in the unlikely event that revenue from the state lottery reserve fund is insufficient to cover its full cost.

According to the White House blog, under the President’s proposed initiative, “Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.”

Statement from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; January 9, 2015:

Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) supports President Obama’s intention to expand access to higher education, which the President plans to announce in Tennessee today.  Congressman Cohen is pleased that many aspects of the President’s plan are similar to the Tennessee HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program that Congressman Cohen, as a Tennessee State Senator, led the 2-decade fight to create.  The Tennessee Education Lottery has provided more than $3 billion in education funding to Tennessee students.  However, Congressman Cohen has expressed his concerns that the President will today highlight the new Tennessee Promise program. Footage of Congressman Cohen speaking on the House floor this morning about the President’s visit to Tennessee is availablehere, and columns penned by the Congressman about the flaws of Tennessee Promise are available here and here.

“I share the President’s goals of making college more affordable and ensuring educational opportunity for all. However, his plan has more in common with the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program that I worked to create than the Tennessee Promise program,” said Congressman Cohen. “Tennessee Promise is not what it appears to be. It is a last-dollar scholarship without standards to attain assistance and without reasonable standards to maintain that assistance. In taking its funding from the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program, Tennessee Promise takes money from achieving low-and middle-income students and directs it to more affluent, non-achieving students.”

By requiring students to maintain a reasonable minimum grade point average (GPA) and achieve high standards in order to continue to receive assistance, President Obama’s community college proposal is more closely aligned with the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program that rewards high school performance than the Tennessee Promise program which is a “last dollar” scholarship program. The bulk of the education dollars that Tennessee Promise depends upon are federally funded Pell Grants and HOPE Education Lottery scholarships.

However, because of overly cautious estimates when the enacting legislation was passed and since, the Tennessee General Assembly has never fully funded the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program but has, instead, allowed excess funds to sit idle in the state’s coffers, encouraging politicians to raid the HOPE scholarship funds for purposes other than intended and understood by Tennessee citizens. The current and largest, most damaging raid on lottery funds is the Tennessee Promise program is fully funded by lottery revenue. The excess funds could have been used to increase the means-tested portion of the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program, making the funds more effective in helping those who need it most.

“By highlighting the Tennessee Promise, an unproven $14 million “last dollar” scholarship program rather than the proven $250 million Tennessee Education HOPE Lottery program, the President is looking at the hole and not the donut,” said Congressman Cohen.

Statement from the Tennessee Republican Party; January 9, 2015:

Just as predicted by Tennessee Republican Party ChairmanChris Devaney in his op-ed in yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel, PresidentBarack Obama will in fact propose two years of paid tuition for graduating high school seniors during his visit to Knoxville later today.

The TNGOP released the following statement from Chairman Devaney about the proposal:

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but the President’s attempt to repackage the Tennessee Promise into a national initiative only gets it half right.

“While Tennessee was able to create the program without new appropriations or increased taxes, President Obama appears to be keen on maxing out America’s credit cards and forcing states to pay a portion of it as well. White House aides are already describing the cost as ‘significant’ to American taxpayers.

“In contrast, Tennesseans aren’t losing a penny on the Tennessee Promise. Without a realistic way to both balance our federal budget and ‘show us the money’, the President just looks eager to pile up more debt.”


  • As reported by Tennessee news outlets, The Tennessee Promise “is a last-dollar scholarship. The state will pay any excess tuition after other financial aid, besides loans, has been utilized at the state’s community and technical colleges. The program is funded through a $300 million transfer from the reserve account of the Tennessee Education Lottery and a $47 million endowment that was created by the General Assembly in 2013.”
  • Chairman Devaney’s KNS op-ed stated, “(I)t should surprise no one if the President proposes a federal version of it (the Tennessee Promise). But, to do so in any meaningful way, he would have to get America’s financial situation to look more like Tennessee’s prudent fiscal state.”
  • The Hill reports White House aides describing the cost of the President’s proposal as “significant” to American taxpayers.

Excerpt from the Kingsport Times-News, “Ramsey: Obama no help to Tennessee Promise,” Jan.9, 2014:

…(Lt. Gov. Ron) Ramsey and Republican members of Congress charge the federal government can’t and shouldn’t pay for a nationwide tuition-free program, which Obama has billed “America’s College Promise.”

The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the program’s $60 billion cost and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program.

“They don’t worry about paying for it,” Ramsey said of the Obama administration. “They say ‘It’s a good idea, let’s do it and let our grandkids pay for it.’ If they take over our Tennessee Promise, we’ll wonder: What happened to that program?”

Ramsey also suggested Obama’s Knoxville appearance might caused problems for Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” Medicaid expansion plan.

“Barack Obama has like a 32 percent approval rating in the state of Tennessee, and he and the governor are going to be on every (state) newspaper,” Ramsey said. “That doesn’t help perception, and in politics perception is reality.”