State of the Union Address: Obama will ‘keep fighting’ for free community college

But higher education was mentioned only briefly in the US president’s speech, finds Ellie Bothwell

January 13, 2016
Barack Obama
Source: iStock

US President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union Address last night to stress that he will “keep fighting” to implement his free community college policy.

President Obama first announced the $60 billion (£40 billion) initiative, which would provide free tuition for the first two years of community college, a year ago – but it has so far failed to get off the ground. Some critics have argued that the federal government should not impose these types of programmes on states, while others have said that community college is already free for most low-income students through Pell grants (the money the government provides for students to pay for college) and suggested the White House could expand this programme instead.

Others have been sceptical of a link between free community college education and higher graduation rates, suggesting that low-income students need more support than just free tuition.

There have been countless newspaper articles claiming that this plan is “doomed to fail” (if you need any examples you can find them here, here and here), but Mr Obama highlighted his commitment to the cause during his speech last night. 

“We have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red,” he said.

“We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 per cent of a borrower’s income. Now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college.”

He added that “bipartisan” reform of No Child Left Behind, an act aimed at closing the education achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, has lifted high school graduation rates “to new highs” (high school graduation increased from 75 per cent in 2007-08 to 82 per cent in 2013-14) and boosted graduates in fields like engineering.

However, apart from these brief mentions, higher education was more or less absent from Mr Obama’s address, which is perhaps unsurprising given that over the past year he has failed to launch his planned initiatives in this area.

As well as his free community college plan, the president had promised to develop a system of ranking higher education institutions back in August 2013, but this was scrapped in June last year. He introduced a College Scorecard instead, which provides information including tuition cost, graduate rate and average salary for each institution but does not rank the universities.

Science received a brief mention in Mr Obama’s State of the Union Address, with the president vowing to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all” and asking how the nation will “reignite” its “spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges”.

“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space programme almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon,” he said, one month after announcing increases to federal science spending, including boosting the Nasa science budget by 6.6 per cent.

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