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Sara Goldrick-Rab

President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free is “both smart and bold,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, the UW-Madison education policy analyst who has focused her research on making college affordable.

Under the Obama proposal unveiled Friday, students would be eligible for free tuition if they attend at least half-time, maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and make steady progress. Community colleges would be expected to offer high-quality programs, with credits transferable to four-year colleges.

Most simply, the plan would endeavor to make two years of college as “free and universal as high school,” as the White House put it.

The plan calls for the federal government to cover three-quarters of the cost — estimated at $60 billion over 10 years — and participating states to add tens of billions in additional dollars. The plan benefits would be “first dollars,” with other financial aid augmenting it to cover books, fees and living expenses.

Goldrick-Rab praised the plan for engaging the states, building on existing federal aid programs and focusing on two-year degrees.

“The president’s proposal would be simpler, more transparent, and quite likely more effective than today's complicated financial aid system,” Goldrick-Rab said in a statement.

Obama previewed the idea in videos posted to Vine and Facebook on Thursday night and the issue was trending on social media Friday even before Obama’s official announcement at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a pioneering state program already offers free community college.

Pointing to indicators of an improved national economy, Obama said at Pellissippi Friday that education has been the way America levels the playing field for its people. Equal outcomes are not guaranteed, the president said, “but we do expect that everybody gets an equal shot. We do expect everyone can go as far as their dreams and their hard work will take them.”

The way to deliver that is “to make sure the education system works on behalf of everyone,” he said.

Goldrick-Rab has floated her own proposal for making two years of post-high school education free to all.

She said that Obama’s plan is the boldest federal education initiative since the Higher Education Act of 1965 and has potential to transform lives as that law has.

“This 21st Century proposal addresses the fact that our outdated student aid policies aren’t fulfilling their purpose of making college affordable for all students," Goldrick-Rab said. "It is long overdue."

“The burden now shifts to Congress, which should approve the President’s proposal, reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and take a broad approach to reducing college costs – not just tuition, but also housing, books, and other costs. Families literally can’t afford to wait through more years of inaction,” she said.

Jack Daniels, president of Madison College, said the Obama proposal has merit and deserves a lot more discussion.

“I believe the present is recognizing two-year colleges for what we have done and that it is important to think about access to our institutions,” Daniels said Friday. “If we can get more individuals in for training who normally would not come to college, we would see and expanded workforce ready for the workplace."

Madison College currently has about 40,000 students in a variety of associate degree and certification programs. About 60 percent of them get some kind of financial aid; 34 percent receive federal Pell grants available only to low-income students.

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The programs that inspired Obama’s proposal, like those in Tennessee and Chicago, rely on state, local and private sector funding. What’s revolutionary about the president’s proposal, Daniels said, would be the involvement of the federal government.

“So there need to be some policy decisions, before anything could move forward,” Daniels said. “The details need to be vetted.

He believes that some kind of changes in the higher education financial aid system is needed to assist students who now head into the workforce with heavy debt. “But we also need to be concerned for our federal budget,” Daniels said.

Obama promised a detailed plan soon. But initial reaction from leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress was chilly.

"With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan," said a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

In Wisconsin, the advocacy group One Wisconsin Now said that the plan reflects the national value that that public education is a public good that the public supports.

Elected officials must honor that value, said One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross, but some have not done that to date.

“Elected officials like U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Gov. Scott Walker have failed to act in the interests of Wisconsin’s nearly one million student loan borrowers on plans to allow borrowers to refinance their loans, just like you can a mortgage,” Ross said in a statement.

"The president recognizes the economic power and electoral might of one million student loan borrowers in Wisconsin and 40 million across the country who aren’t looking for a bailout, but are looking for their chance at the American Dream,” he said.

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