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The Potential Benefits of Obama’s Free Community College Plan

The president's proposal could have benefits that go way beyond the individual student.
(Photo: American Spirit/Shutterstock)

(Photo: American Spirit/Shutterstock)

Today, President Obama expanded on his plan for a government program that would make community college free for millions of students in the United States.

Here’s how it breaks down: Federal funding would cover 75 percent of the average cost of community college, and states would handle the rest. In order to participate in the program, students have to attend the colleges at least “half-time,” making “steady progress” toward completion of their program, while maintaining a 2.5 GPA. Participating community colleges will have to offer programs that either transfer credits to four-year schools, or provide in-demand occupational training.

If Obama’s large-scale proposal makes it through Congress, it could have long-term benefits not just for the students that receive free education, but for society as a whole.

According to the administration, if all 50 states opt-in to the program it could help some nine million students per year, and save full-time community college students an average of $3,800 in tuition every year.

Obama officially announced the initiative at a community college in Tennessee, whose own similar Tennessee Promise program—which will be made available to this year’s graduating high school seniors—draws from a state lottery fund to pay for student scholarships. If Obama’s large-scale proposal makes it through Congress, it could have long-term benefits not just for the students that receive free education, but for society as a whole.

A 2009 study in Contemporary Economic Policy found that enrollment in academic programs at community colleges had a significant effect on subsequent earnings. That’s especially true for women. The study found that females who graduated with a two-year degree earned almost 46 percent more than high school-educated women. Male graduates, meanwhile, earned 12 percent more than high school-educated males. Surprisingly, even women and men who didn’t complete their degrees still earned roughly 10 and five percent more, respectively, over their high school-educated counterparts.

A 2014 executive summary from the American Association of Community Colleges noted similar earning benefits for students:

The average associate’s degree completer will see an increase in earnings of $10,700 each year compared to someone with a high school diploma or equivalent. Over a working lifetime, this increase in earnings amounts to an undiscounted value of approximately $470,800 in higher income. The present value of the higher future wages that community college students will receive over their working careers is $469.3 billion.

Community college can benefit society in several ways, according to the report. Higher education is correlated with lifestyle changes that end up costing society less for health costs, crime, and unemployment. And the skills students acquire at community colleges benefit businesses by increasing worker productivity. The increased business output, coupled with the higher wages community college graduates earn, benefit society as a whole by raising prosperity and strengthening the economic base.

Obama’s proposed program—still in the very early stages—already has its critics. The president’s proposal will still need the approval of Congress to ever take effect. That, like any other proposal that comes from the White House, will be a tough sell to a Republican caucus.