RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At the end of a dramatic week of news, not only have French authorities surrounded the two suspects in this week's massacre in Paris, but there's also a story here in Washington of a political nature. A new Congress started work. And President Obama started working to seize the initiative. Last night, he posted a short video announcing a goal.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Put simply, what I'd like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who's willing to work for it.
MONTAGNE: The president will talk more about that today in a visit to Tennessee. The idea of free community college has been gaining support, as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: In the emerging debate over this idea, there are skeptics, and the are true believers.
SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: This is a fundamental, systematic change. It's bold. And I think that it's exactly what we need right now.
SANCHEZ: Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Last year, she co-authored a study titled "Securing America's Future With A Free Two-Year College Option." It outlines precisely what President Obama is talking about today at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee.
GOLDRICK-RAB: Tennessee is the leader in this. Mississippi has looked at it. Oregon is considering looking at it. But I believe that Tennessee is the only one that's accomplished it.
SANCHEZ: Tennessee residents, regardless of income, can attend community college and not have to pay tuition. The program is funded with state lottery funds to the tune of $1,000 per year per student. And President Obama wants to see more states do the same. But some have their doubts.
SANDY BAUM: For the president to say we're going to make it free all over the country - it's not clear how the federal government would do that.
SANCHEZ: Sandy Baum is a skeptic. She has spent much of her career studying trends in college cost. First of all, says Baum, the federal government has no say in how much tuition community colleges charge. Second, community colleges in most states are pretty affordable and already free for low-income students.
BAUM: But making it free for people who can afford to go - it's not that there's something wrong with it being free. It's that it's wrong to allocate our scarce funds when you have a lot of low-income students who are struggling to pay their living costs.
SANCHEZ: True, says Sara Goldrick-Rab. But the $8,000 a year that full-time community college students pay on average for tuition and costs is out of reach for lots of middle-income students as well.
GOLDRICK-RAB: And the middle class feels this all the time. They can't get the Pell grant despite the fact that they have no money of their own.
SANCHEZ: Goldrick-Rab says offering the middle class tuition-free community college would get broad political support. She says the $50 to $60 billion the federal government is already spending on Pell grants and other need-based aid every year would help subsidize tuition-free plans throughout the country.
BAUM: But that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about reallocating funds.
SANCHEZ: Again, Sandy Baum.
BAUM: Proposals that just push the money around and give more of it to more affluent students going to community colleges are really not going to solve our problems, even if they sound good.
SANCHEZ: In some ways, the debate over tuition-free committee college that President Obama is trying to kick-start is not unlike the debate he started by proposing universal preschool. People recognize the benefits but disagree on the details and the money. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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