President Obama has revealed a bold new proposal for community colleges in the US. The proposal is to offer students who can maintain some eligibility standards free access to community college for two years. This is based on a similar program being implemented in Tennessee. The plan is to have states opt in to the program so that costs can be shared between states and the federal government.
There are a lot of potential benefits for this kind of plan. It will allow many students who might not be able to afford college or maybe need some extra skills to get a two-year degree without incurring much debt. It would also give students a chance to prepare for transferring to a four-year university without having to worry about how to pay for their education. Furthermore, it will provide incentives for students to choose public colleges over the often-predatory for-profit sector that currently attracts a huge number of students (and a huge fraction of federal financial aid money). Getting these students into community colleges will allow the government to provide them with a better education for less money.
Of course, whether or not such a plan succeeds (assuming funding and any legal changes are enacted by Congress) depends on the specifics of the implementation. States will need to be willing to invest some extra money into community colleges rather than just replacing state appropriations with federal ones. They also probably would need to be sure that community colleges focus on broad skills and traditional coursework rather than highly-specific certification programs that become obsolete almost immediately. Finally, the federal government would need to ensure that states don’t simply shift appropriations from four-year to two-year colleges. Tuition and fees at many public four-year universities is already high enough to shut out many students for financial reasons so making this even worse in order to fund two-year schools would potentially be counterproductive.