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By Fawn Johnson
January 8, 2015

President Obama wants to provide free tuition at community colleges, a proposal that could benefit as many as 9 million students, according to a White House outline of the plan released Thursday.

There is one big caveat in the proposal — there is no plan to fund it, other than to ask Congress for the money.

Without that crucial piece of the program, which would be available to students as long as they maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, the idea is little more than a pipe dream. It resembles Obama’s proposal in 2013 for a universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds. To provide free public pre-K just for low-income families would cost $75 billion over 10 years. Early-education lobbyists are struggling to figure out how to persuade lawmakers to pony up for that small part of a larger proposal. (A cigarette tax is among the items they are bandying about.)

When it comes to community colleges, the lobbyists haven’t even gotten that far. Yet Obama is hoping to capitalize on a campaign begun in his first term to emphasize higher education for people who don’t have easy access to four-year universities. Community colleges are increasingly becoming an affordable way for students to attain the first half of a bachelor’s degree before transferring to a four-year university. College tuition and student debt have proven to be powerful campaign tools, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has illustrated in her effort to reduce student-loan interest rates.

Obama, meanwhile, has been criticized by some in the higher-education community for his emphasis on community colleges over other types of schools that offer professional degrees, even as the Education Department has engaged in a six-year war with the for-profit college industry over its recruitment practices. This latest announcement from the White House won’t smooth over any hard feelings.

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