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Free Community College Plan Tops Obama's Education Wish List

President Barack Obama's proposal to give Americans two years of free community college was the most ambitious education item that he presented in his State of the Union address last night.

Previewed earlier this month in Tennessee, America's College Promise has been pitched by the administration as a way to partner with states to make college affordable and equip workers with the skills they need to be competitive in the job market.

"America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world," said Obama before Congress Tuesday evening. "By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It's not fair to them, and it's not smart for our future."

Details of of how to pay for the proposal's estimated price tag of $60 million over the next 10 years—the biggest obstacle to adoption— will come with the release of the budget in early February. However, in his remarks last night, the president said that his new ideas to help middle class families would be covered through changes to the tax system, including raising the top capital gains tax, increasing the amount of inherited money subject to taxes, and placing new fees on financial institutions.

(For complete coverage of the State of Union address and its impact on education issues, see Politics K-12.)

Response from the Republican leadership rejecting any new form of taxes or fees makes America's College Promise look like a long shot. Soon after the president unveiled his vision, analysts voiced concern about the likelihood of there being enough support or money to pay for universal community college. Yet, college access advocates welcomed just having the issue of higher education affordability on the national agenda. (For more, see "Skepticm, Hope Greet Presidents Community College Plan.")

"President Obama's attention to postsecondary education access and skills-training issues in his address provides important recognition of our nation's duty to equitably prepare every student for college and career success," said LeAnn Wilson, the executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education, in a statement following Tuesday night's speech.

The Alexandria, Va.-based organization of CTE educators also applauded the administration for recognizing the role of career programs in preparing students for the workforce.  In his address, Obama also touted a new technical education grant that would promote strong employer partnerships, work-based learning opportunities, and a schedule that accommodates part-time work. The CTE proposal drew more a cautionary response in among others in the field. (See Curriculum Matters blog post today.)

To illustrate how community college credentials can boost the income of a family, Obama framed his State of the Union speech with a reference to Rebekah and Ben Erler, a young couple from Minneapolis. After retraining for a new career at a community college, Rebekah got a higher-paying job that helped the family rebound affer the recession. "America, Rebekah and Ben's story is our story.  They represent the millions who have worked hard and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled," said Obama.

If the president's vision to pay for community college with a federal initiative does not fly, some suggest that states may follow Tennessee's lead and develop their own promise programs. Indeed, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is among those calling for states to replicate the Tennessee Promise rather than launch a national program.

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