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Obama’s Free College Flunks First Republican Test

President Obama announced on Friday an ambitious proposal to provide two years of free community college to all Americans. But the plan may be dead on arrival, as the Republican support needed to make it happen is lacking.

Several key Republicans have already explicitly rejected the president’s approach, which would offer close to $4,000 a year to any American seeking to attend a two-year community college program

Sen. Lamar Alexander, who this week ascended to the chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee, said Obama’s creation of “a new federal program” isn’t the best way to improve college access, even if that program is based on a Republican-created plan in his home state of Tennessee.

“The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done,” Alexander said in a statement sent to The Daily Caller News Foundation. Alexander also suggested Obama could improve college access by helping to simplify the complicated application process used to obtain existing federal Pell grants.

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who heads the House Education Committee, also took a negative outlook towards the president’s proposal.

“The president is proposing yet another multi-billion dollar federal program that will compete with existing programs for limited taxpayer dollars,” Kline said in a statement given to TheDCNF. “Unless the president has a responsible plan to meet our existing commitments, he shouldn’t be making new promises the American people can’t afford.”

Without the support of the Republicans’ two point men on education, it’s hard to see Obama’s proposal gaining substantial traction.

Details on Obama’s plan remain scant, as the president waits for the State of the Union and his 2015 budget proposal to lay out additional details.

One of the top concerns of policy analysts on the right is cost. After first refusing to put a price tag on the plan, on Friday the White House estimated that a 10-year commitment would cost $60 billion, with another $20 billion coming from state governments that agree to participate.

The government has also suggested that as many as 9 million students could participate, with full-time students saving $3,800 per year. Combined, those two figures amount to roughly $34 billion a year in spending.

Lawmakers should be deeply skeptical of such a price tag, said Lindsey Burke, an education researcher with The Heritage Foundation.

“Anything that has an unknown price tag should raise a big red flag with members of Congress, especially the most conservative members,” Burke told TheDCNF. “The money isn’t ‘free,’ it comes from the taxpayers.”

Burke also warned that once federal subsidy money begins to flow, community college prices will surge to gobble up as much federal money as possible, similarly to how 4-year college tuition has risen in tandem with federal student loan commitments.

“I don’t see any reason why community colleges would keep their costs in check if they know the federal government is funding it,” she said. A host of other unforeseen consequences could arise as well, she said, including weakening the nation’s high schools.

“Effectively, this is creating a six-year high school system,” she said. “It takes a lot of responsibility off of high schools to adequately prepare students, when they know that there are de facto grades 13 and 14 that will follow after them.”

Lending some support to Burke’s contention is, ironically, vice president Joe Biden, who argued Friday that when it comes to free education, “twelve years is not enough” to succeed in the modern economy.

Even if there weren’t side effects to be worried about, some critics of Obama’s policy are questioning whether it makes sense to focus on community colleges as the way to improve American education. Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, published a blog post Friday arguing that community colleges produce relatively poor academic outcomes for most students who attend. According to the government’s own data, McCluskey said, only about 20 percent of students at community colleges complete a two-year degree within three years of starting. With an increase in public largesse, he says, that figure is only likely to decrease.

“This proposal… essentially encourag[es] people to spend two years in community college fully on the taxpayer dime while they dabble in things they may or may not want to do—and as they maintain a pretty low 2.5 GPA—then maybe focusing a little more when the two years is up and they have to pay something themselves,” wrote McCluskey.

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