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In a move that could change the way the nation views higher education, President Obama today announced details for a plan that would use federal dollars to subsidize two years of community college for Americans “willing to work for it.” AKA, free college for lots of people.

Leaders here say the plan could allow thousands of Philadelphians to attend community college — people who wouldn’t have attended before because they couldn’t afford it. Donald Generals, president of the Community College of Philadelphia, said Friday that the school’s enrollment could increase by 15 percent, and that’s a “conservative” estimate.

Bonus: If the plan moves forward, it could cut down on the city’s nearly-9-percent high school dropout rate, giving students the financial hope they might need to push through their final years of high school with plans to attend community college.

But there are major concerns with the proposal — like where schools will put the thousands of (theoretical) new students. And experts say it’ll be a hard sell for the president who will need backing from a Republican-controlled Congress. Here’s what you need to know:

The basics

Obama today unveiled his “America’s College Promise” proposal that’d spend billions of dollars in federal funds to subsidize two years of free community college education for working Americans. Basically community college and trade school would be as accessible as high school. The White House estimates at least nine million American students could obtain an associate’s degree or half their bachelor’s degree for no cost, saving an average of $3,800 a year in tuition.

Here’s how it’d work: The feds will cough up three quarters of the average cost of community college tuition, while students will be required to enroll at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and work to obtain a degree in three years. The state will have to agree to provide the cash needed for the other 25 percent of tuition if they’re willing to take part in the program.

“Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it,” Obama said Friday during an event in Tennessee. “It’s not a blank check, not a free lunch, but for those willing to do the work…it can be a game changer.”

Is this too good to be true?

Experts say more details on the plan — that could cost in the ballpark of $60 billion over 10 years — will come during the State of the Union address on Jan. 20 and when the president unveils his 2016 budget request. But the president’s proposal is faaaaar from reality. In fact, Republican leaders are calling the move a talking point rather than a plan, and Obama’s efforts could be easily stymied by Republicans controlling Congress.

So what’s it mean for Philly?

It could be huge for Philadelphia’s higher education scene. The Community College of Philadelphia, already the largest public institution of higher education in the city, enrolls more than 34,000 students every year, and Philadelphia students with a 13-credit load pay $2,555 a semester. That number of students could skyrocket for two reasons:

  1. More people will be able to afford an associate’s degree.
  2. Students looking to get a bachelor’s degree could spend their first two years in community college for free and then transfer to a four-year school.

Generals, the Community College of Philadelphia president, said Friday that the school turned away 3,000 students last year who either didn’t qualify for enough financial aid or didn’t provide the correct federal aid documentation. He estimated that if this proposal becomes reality, those 3,000 students and more would immediately have the ability to attend school.

That’s a lot of new students.

Yes it is. One of the most glaring concerns for 1,100 community colleges across the country is building capacity. Where they’ll put a major influx of new students looking for a free education is anyone’s guess.

“We would have to deal with it,” Generals said. “In terms of our budget and budget requests and achieving certain economies, it probably would mean more support for both faculty, classroom space and facilities.”

Where are these students coming from?

Philadelphia has historically dealt with a high dropout rate, and most recently the rate reached nearly 1 in 10 students. More federal support for community colleges means they’ll be able to better work with high schools in dual enrollment and curriculum alignment with the hope of decreasing the dropout rate.

But if that doesn’t work, it’s another chance at an education for those who do leave high school.

“This provides an opportunity to gives those individuals second chances,” Generals said. “That’s part of what we do. We provide second chances for people who do drop out, and many of those people are very successful right now in living middle-class lives.”

Any other downsides to this?

Some advocates also complain that free tuition actually doesn’t benefit lower-income students at all, but rather helps middle-income and wealthier students who could realistically afford it. For many low-income students, Pell Grants already cover the full price of community college tuition — it’s living expenses and incidental costs that deter students from being financially able to attend.

At the Community College of Philadelphia, officials say most students receive some form of financial aid already. In some ways, the additional federal funds could take the onus off of the schools to provide additional private scholarships.

So schools could benefit, too?

Definitely. The Community College of Philadelphia’s 2014 operating budget consisted of $128.2 million — of that, 16.5 percent came from the city, 22.4 percent came from the state and 58.4 percent came from students. If the federal government does pledge to subsidize two years of education for students with the help of the state, then those figures will dramatically change.

Uh-oh. The state’s involved? 

The state will inevitably *have* to be involved. In order for Pennsylvania’s colleges to be eligible, the state will have to essentially opt into the program in the same way it was required to in order to receive additional Medicaid funds. (Remember how that went?) Under the proposal, states would be required to provide some matching funding, institute policies including performance-based state funding and commit to maintenance.

Generals said advocates in the state will surely lobby state legislators to opt in, should the proposal go through. He said he doesn’t expect push-back at the state level, though.

“This is not an investment on an experiment,” he said. “This is an investment on something that works and has a clear track record.”

This story was updated to reflect that Philadelphia residents with a 13-credit load pay $2,555 in tuition and fees.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.