Tom Hanks Just Made A Pretty Damn Powerful Case for Free Community College...

January 10th 2015

President Obama thinks the first two years of community college should be free, and last week he told us about his plan to make it happen. 

Today, actor Tom Hanks wrote a touching column in the New York Times explaining that attending community college changed his life. He went to Chabot College in Hayward, Calif.

"I drove past the campus a few years ago with one of my kids and summed up my two years there this way: 'That place made me what I am today,'" Hanks wrote.

Like the president last week, Hanks emphasized the cost-effective and real-world practicality of community college:

For thousands of commuting students, Chabot was our Columbia, Annapolis, even our Sorbonne, offering courses in physics, stenography, auto mechanics, certified public accounting, foreign languages, journalism — name the art or science, the subject or trade, and it was probably in the catalog. The college had a nursing program that churned out graduates, sports teams that funneled athletes to big-time programs, and parking for a few thousand cars — all free but for the effort and the cost of used textbooks.

The president has asked Congress to pass a new program that would make community college free.

"I want to bring [the cost] down to zero. I want to make it free," said the president in a speech last week in Knoxville, Tenn. "Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today."

Hanks endorsed the president's plan today.

I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives. High school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work. Many lives will be changed.

Citing good employment numbers over the last few months as well as a declining deficit, the president emphasized that a recovering economy means that the US has the resources to make this investment.

He also framed community college as a key to helping create more opportunities for Americans who right now cannot afford college.

"No one with drive and discipline should [be] denied a college education just because they don’t have the money," the president said.

The president first announced the plan in a video recorded on Air Force One:

Here's how he wants to make that happen.

Why community colleges?

The president -- as well as many other education experts -- believe that community colleges will play a vital role in preparing the American workforce for increasingly complex jobs. According to the White House, 30 percent of jobs in 2020 will require at least some college classes or an associate's degree. You can get that at a community college.

Community colleges are also cost-effective and offer more flexibility than traditional, four-year schools. This helps students who have full-time or part-time jobs.

Community colleges put students on the path to employment in two ways. They can serve as a stepping stone to a bachelor's degree at a four-year college. Or they can provide students with a two-year program that's designed for certain careers like nursing or manufacturing. The president's plan also calls for awards of funding to colleges with programs that are particularly good at helping students find technical jobs.

Who would benefit?

  • Students enrolled in at least 6 credit hours. (i.e. half-time students).
  • Students maintaining a 2.5 GPA in college.

The White House says this program would save 9 million students about $3,800 a year. The average yearly tuition for a two-year, public community college is about $3,100.

How much would it cost?

It will cost more than $60 billion over ten years, according to the White House. We'll get more detail on Feb. 2 when the president releases his budget proposal.

Who pays for this?

The federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost. States would pay 25 percent.

So will this be the law now?

No. Congress needs to pass it first.

So, it probably won't happen while President Obama is in office. At least in this form. It's not likely that a Republican Congress would be interested in passing what would undoubtedly be an expensive program. Congress has not passed the president's earlier proposals to increase federal funding for community college tuition.

“With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” a spokesperson for Republican House Speaker John Boehner told The Wall Street Journal.

So there's no hope this will happen?

I wouldn't say there's no hope. If you're an optimist, you'll look at two things. 

1. Business is concerned that our workforce is not trained to handle 21st century jobs. You'll often hear this referred to as the "skills gap." Consequently, they support programs like this one that would better prepare American workers. And Republicans usually do right by business.

2. Tennessee, a Republican-leaning state, has a similar program. (See below.)

Why am I hearing about these programs in Tennessee and Chicago?

Both Tennessee and Chicago have programs that cover the cost of community college for some students.  

In Tennessee, students qualify if they begin community college in the fall after graduating high school, take at least 12 credit hours each semester, complete eight hours of community service each semester, and maintain a 2.0 GPA. The state says 50,000 students have applied and that about 20,000 will take advantage of it. The president is so fond of Tennessee's program that he announced his own community college plan in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee was a good backdrop for the president because it's generally a Republican state, yet it has a similar program to what the president wants to do at the federal level. "Look at this state's program," he seems to be saying. "Even Republicans should like this idea."

Tennessee's senior Senator, Republican Lamar Alexander, attended the president's speech, though reports say he opposes the president's plan. Go figure.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said that city residents will receive three years of community college tuition if they maintain a 3.0 GPA and test into college-level math and English.