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Free Community College Plan Will Have Restrictions, Price Tag

President Barack Obama took to Facebook and Vine last week to announce his free community college proposal.

The plan is similar to Tennessee Promise, which lets Tennessee students apply for scholarships for two tuition-free years at a Tennessee community college or technical school. Obama shared some details of his plan, America’s College Promise, during a visit Friday to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn.

The plan has its supporters and detractors. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has said this type of program is best left to the states. Alexander was the U.S. Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993.

And there’s the price tag. A White House spokesman said last week that the plan would cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years. States that join the program would be responsible for a fourth of the cost.

“There’s nothing that’s really free,” St. Louis Public Radio education reporter Dale Singer  told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “It’s going to be tax money. It’ll be you and me and anybody else who pays taxes, and maybe this is a perfectly legitimate use of taxes.”

Students and colleges that participate in the program also will have to meet requirements. Students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

“The schools also have to demonstrate a lot of things,” Singer said. “One, that they are a top-quality program and they also are showing that they are helping the students persist to graduation, which has always been a complaint about students in community colleges. They start and they even run up some student loan debt but then they drop out. So they really don’t have anything that they didn’t have before except some student loans to pay back.”

Many leaders hope, however, that this would help students go on and earn four-year degrees.

“This would be a good way to get those basic courses under your belt the first two years of college,” Singer said. “Maybe if you need remedial courses, which is always a big concern for some students coming out of high school, maybe you could get those out of the way so that then you could go on, you’d be a little more mature, you’d have a little bit more education, you’d have a little bit better sense of where you might want to go, then you could go on to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree.”

Older adults going to college for the first time or returning to school would also be eligible for the program, Singer said.

Singer said he expects most community colleges will support the proposal.

“They always represent themselves as kind of the first rung on the ladder, and this would just be able to make it all that much easier to reach that rung,” he said.

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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