THE BLOG
01/22/2015 10:02 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

How the GOP Could Support Obama's Free College Program

It is clear that Barack Obama is pushing a progressive or even "class conflict" agenda in these last two years of his administration. One can see this clearly between his call for a significant tax increase geared towards the top 1 percent of income earners and a push for "free" college education for the first two years for all that would qualify for a new program. Obama wants to position his party and administration as the great equalizer.

It would seem that, in light of the platforms the GOP got elected on, that there is no appetite for increase taxes on the most affluent. In their eyes, this is the equivalent of killing the goose that "lays the golden eggs" or, at the very least, the forcing of these birds to more prosperous countries. However, things are not so clear about what the GOP led Congress would do about the college education proposal.

Concerning the current state of affairs of higher education, we know that the cost for students is significant and many don't even entertain two years, because they don't know if they can keep up the momentum to complete the typically required four. According to The Guardian, "average tuition and fees at public two-year colleges for the 2014-to-2015 school year were $3,347, about $106 more than the year before, according to College Board. While many of these schools are commuter schools, students who opt for the full college experience including living on campus and in dorms were possibly having to pay about $7,705 more. About 1 million students -- or 8.5 percent of students enrolled at community colleges -- do not have access to federal loans. Community colleges currently have some of the highest default rates on record. Despite the fact that few community college students take on debt, more than one in five of those who take out federal loans default on them."

The president's proposal, also known as "America's College Promise", would be a joint effort between the federal and state governments to provide government funded community college education. The federal government would cover 75 percent of the costs, while the states would be saddled with the rest.

States that already spend more and charge students less will only make small contributions, according to the White House. To be eligible for the program a student would have to maintain a 2.5 grade point average and attend the school at least half-time. In 2012, there were about 7.16 million students enrolled at two-year community colleges. Just 2.9 million were full-time. Advocates for the program hope that, with the subsidy, people will take more hours, which will likely help them make graduation a more realistic goal.

President Obama is not the first one to suggest that community college be paid for by the government. Late last year, three New York city council members proposed making the City University system tuition entirely covered by the government.

The White House proposal is similar to programs in Chicago and Tennessee, but extends to all community college students including those going back to school. This is different from the other programs, which are extended only to recent high-school graduates.

So how will Republicans respond to this? Conventional wisdom is a resounding "no". The most recent sweeping of the Congress by the GOP happened partially because many Americans want to reel in prolific spending and not add more to it. Meanwhile, no one in the administration is discussing how much the America's College Promise program would cost. As a result, Speaker Beohner's spokesman, Cory Fritz has reduced the discussion of the president's proposal to a "talking point" rather than an actual plan. According to the White House, funding for the plan will be released later as part of the president's budget. The administration believes the plan would help about nine million students, saving them about $3,800 a year.

In spite of fiscal concerns, there are pragmatic political reasons why the GOP might support this proposal.

Before the War on Poverty in the 1960s, both parties tended to promote social policies that moved people up in the economic ladder (such as the G.I. Bill, which provided the opportunity for veterans to get a college education). Although these programs were far from perfect, they did at least encourage social advancement and were done in exchange of individual sacrifice (such as serving in the military). Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O'Neill once stated that the Democrats had made people so well off through the ability to pursue higher education, that they could afford to become Republicans. That is exactly why Republicans might sign up for this program as well. In addition to requiring performance in order to get paid, it could very well result in a more affluent (and more inclined to vote GOP) electorate. It is hard to envision the GOP making such a bold stroke in light of a very hostile electorate expecting fiscal discipline, but in the world of politics, stranger things have certainly happened.