Community colleges were back in the spotlight on Tuesday night, as President Obama plugged his plan to make the institutions free for millions of students.
Speaking to Congress and the nation, Mr. Obama urged legislators to follow Tennessee’s lead and make two years of college "as free and universal in America as high school is today."
"Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt," he said in his next-to-last State of the Union address.
Mr. Obama also touted his tax-reform plan, announced over the weekend. That plan would increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans and on financial firms to pay for free community college, while streamlining the higher-education tax credits and rolling back tax breaks for college-savings plans, among many other changes.
Like past addresses, Tuesday’s speech focused on jobs and the economy, with higher education cast as a path to individual prosperity and national competitiveness.
"Americans thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free. … We were ahead of the curve, but other countries caught on," he said. "In a 21st-century economy that rewards knowledge more than ever before, we need to up our game."
He called on businesses to "offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships—opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education."
In a fact sheet released during the speech, the White House said the president would convene employers, foundations, educators, unions, nonprofit organizations, and others "who are equipping front-line workers with the skills they need to advance into better-paying jobs and punch their tickets to the middle class" to share best practices.
Regarding immigration, the president vowed to veto a Republican bill in the House of Representatives that would undo most of his executive actions on that issue, including his 2012 decision to stop deporting young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. That program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, has shielded some 600,000 young immigrants—some of them college students—from deportation.
College CostsMissing from this year’s speech was the tough talk on college costs that distinguished some of Mr. Obama’s past addresses to Congress. The president didn’t mention his college-ratings plan, either.
In 2012 and again in 2013, Mr. Obama took colleges to task over rising costs, putting them "on notice" that the government would not continue to subsidize ever-escalating tuition.
This year, the only allusion to tuition growth came in a pledge to make student debt more manageable, "so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams."
The community-college plan, which the president previewed in an appearance this month at Pellissippi State Community College, in Tennessee, calls for the federal government to pick up the tab for about three-quarters of students’ tuition costs, with states kicking in the rest. If enacted, it would save full-time students an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.
But the plan isn’t cheap, and Republicans in Congress have already dismissed the idea. On Friday the office of the speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, used a series of GIF animations of the musician Taylor Swift to mock the plan and highlight its $60-billion price tag.
Republicans have also criticized Mr. Obama’s tax proposals. On Sunday, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate education committee, suggested the ideas were dead on arrival.
"Hopefully the president’s address will also include some proposals that might actually have a chance to become law," he said in a written statement.
But Mr. Obama isn’t giving up on either idea. In a conference call with reporters before the speech, a senior administration official said the president was "not slowing down," and "intends to take full advantage of the next two years." The change to Republican leadership in Congress would not deter him, the official added.
One area where Mr. Obama might be able to reach agreement with Republicans is on student-aid simplification. According to the White House fact sheet, the president is calling for the elimination of 27 questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa. That’s not quite as radical as Senator Alexander’s plan to shrink the form to the size of a postcard, but it’s something.
Following up on his speech, the president is scheduled to pitch his proposals this week in two heavily Republican states: Idaho and Kansas. On Wednesday he’ll visit Boise State University, and on Thursday he’ll visit the University of Kansas.