Referencing previous federal efforts to increase educational opportunities for Americans, including the GI Bill, Obama tried to reinvigorate his plan to give at least two years of free community college to students who maintain a high grade point average.
Accompanied by Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden and herself a community college professor, Obama announced an independent College Promise Advisory Board, led by Biden, that will highlight existing programs providing free community college. The board will try to recruit more states and communities to do likewise and will also enlist celebrities in a public awareness campaign to press for tuition-free community college.
He also announced $175 million in Department of Labor grants across the country to help with apprenticeships, with awards going to 46 organizations, institutions and businesses pledging to train workers in health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing and more.
But the spotlight was on community colleges.
“I’ve been focused on community colleges,” Obama said in his speech. “They are at the heart of the American dream.
“For every young person willing to work hard, I want community college to be as free and universal as high school. It’s easy for politicians to say young people are the future. But you’ve got to walk the walk.
“No kid should be priced out of a college education. No hard working young person should be denied just because of where they started.
“You don’t have to necessarily go to a four-year degree to get a good job, but you need to have some specialized skills.”
Obama unveiled his proposal as part of his State of Union speech. It would give students two free years, but would require them to maintain a 2.5 GPA.
That could cause issues, an April Detroit Free Press story found. An average of 31 percent of currently enrolled students getting federal Pell Grants — given to low-income students — at several Michigan community colleges wouldn’t be eligible for the money.
National data shows a similar picture. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, 24.4 percent of community college students with a Pell Grant had GPAs under 2.5 in 2011-12, the latest year data is available for.
That means a significant number of students who, based on financial needs, would benefit the most from the plan would be ineligible for it, although they would still qualify for Pell Grants.
The average net price for a full-time Michigan community college student is around $6,000 a year. A full Pell Grant only typically covers about 60 percent of the cost of attending community college, national data shows.
Obama’s plan could cost the federal government an estimated $70 billion annually. Under the plan, the federal government would cover three-quarters of the program’s cost, with the states picking up the remaining amount.
Gov. Rick Snyder hasn’t committed to spending Michigan funds on the program.
Before his speech Wednesday, Obama toured the Michigan Technical Education Center, run by Macomb Community College.
“All this equipment is almost identical to what is being used by the auto companies,” Obama told the press pool. “The auto companies helped design and set up the equipment. This 10-week program is going to allow Natalie to operate and maintain this equipment.
“At the end of the 10 weeks there will be a job fair and she is likely to be hired. Macomb is a good example of where if community college programs are structured around the needs of employers, not only can we make the courses shorter, we can also make sure graduates have jobs.”
The program Obama toured is funded by a federal grant. Biden also was on the tour.
Natalie Heacock, 20, of Clinton Township, is about halfway through the 10-week training program and got a chance to talk with the president.
Obama then met Philip Gates, 25, of Richmond, who used his yellow robot to write USA on a white sketch pad on an easel.
“Fantastic,” Obama said.
Gates is also in the National Guard and Obama thanked him for his service
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