WASHINGTON – President Obama on Friday proposed making community college free for all Americans, casting the plan as a way to help more people enter the middle class -- though he faced skepticism in Congress amid questions over how the plan would be funded.
The president formally announced the $60 billion plan during a speech in Tennessee, after initially unveiling it in a video posted on Facebook. Describing a quality education as a "right" for those willing to work for it, Obama called on Congress to support his "ambitious" program to bring the cost of community college "down to zero."
To a cheering crowd, Obama said, "I want to make it free."
The president urged making community college as universal as high school. "A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class," Obama said.
The president's plan, which aides compared to a program in Tennessee, would provide free community college for two years, by covering enough tuition to get students who keep their grades up an associate's degree or halfway to a bachelor's.
Administration officials, however, were vague on the details.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the plan is expected to cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years. The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program -- though it's unclear where the money might come from.
Officials said the funding details would emerge later with the president's budget. They estimated 9 million students could participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.
The proposal drew immediate criticism from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose spokesman said, "with no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also said that while increasing access to affordable education is important, Obama's "multi-billion dollar Washington rewrite of a successful Republican state education program is neither serious nor responsible -- he can't even say how he'd pay for its $60 billion price tag despite the country drowning in red ink."
The idea was reminiscent of Obama's 2013 State of the Union proposal to provide universal preschool, which Congress did not take up because of cost issues. Obama policy adviser Cecilia Munoz pointed out that even without federal action, many states are taking up the idea and expanding preschool.
Last year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a scholarship program that provides free community and technical college tuition for two years to the state's high school graduates. About 58,000 of the state's roughly 62,000 seniors have applied to participate this fall.
But Tennessee Republican Rep. Diane Black said her state's plan, called Tennessee Promise, is paid mostly with lottery funds, while the federal funding source for Obama's plan is unclear and states will have to help pick up the tab. "Ultimately, any efforts to reboot Tennessee Promise as a one-size-fits-all nationwide approach will be met with heavy skepticism from Congress," Black said.
Under the president's new plan, students would be required to maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and must make steady progress toward completing their program in order to have their tuition eliminated, according to the press release.
"Put simply, what I'd like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it," the president said in his Facebook announcement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.