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College leaders like Obama plan, but think it’s uphill political battle

WATERTOWN, S.D. -- When the president of the United States speaks, people listen. And President Barack Obama has garnered a lot of attention for his proposal to make the first two years of community or technical college free across the country. ...

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President Barack Obama receives a standing ovation as he walks on to the stage before he would give the Commencement Address during commencement exercises for Lake Area Technical Institute on Friday afternoon in Watertown. (Matt Gade/Forum News Service)


WATERTOWN, S.D. - When the president of the United States speaks, people listen.

And President Barack Obama has garnered a lot of attention for his proposal to make the first two years of community or technical college free across the country. He pitched his plan again during his speech to the graduating class of Lake Area Technical Institute and their guests on Friday in Watertown.

“In just two years, schools like this can change lives,” Obama said. “Change careers. Grow our economy. It can change our country. All of us are better off if our businesses have access to the best trained workers in the world.”


That said, the plan’s cost -- an estimated $60 billion over 10 years -- is what has some college administrators, despite support for the effort, concerned about the likelihood of it happening, due to the cost.  

“Let’s put it this way: I don’t think it’s very likely,” Mitchell (S.D.) Technical Institute President Greg Von Wald said earlier this week.

On Friday, Obama said the federal government needs to be more committed to funding community colleges and technical schools, comparing it to the changes to make the G.I. Bill and four years of high school standard. He would like to make at least two years of post-secondary education as common as finishing high school.  

“I think the country should return the favor,” he said. “We should invest in people like you. Our budgets should reflect that we care about you.”

“As a country, we can’t afford to let any striving American to be priced out of the education they need to get ahead,” he said. “We need to make two years of community college as free and universal as high school is today. It’s the right thing to do.”

The college plan would waive tuition costs for students attending community college if they are attending at least half-time, maintaining a 2.5 grade point average or better and making progress for a degree. The White House estimates the plan would help 9 million students on an annual basis, if enacted and all states participated.

Von Wald said he supports the president’s plan and thinks it would give the world of two-year schools a big boost.

“He’s correct that it should be done,” Von Wald said. “It would help build our workforce and it would certainly raise the bar and the expectations for what we do here.”


But he said the cost would likely turn off many politicians. The plan also calls for state governments to kick in about 25 percent of the funding, which is another possible holdup.

“Considering the national debt that we have, I think it’s probably going to be a hard sell to get this done,” he said.

Obama alluded to a loophole that could be closed to pay for the free community college plan. The White House has proposed raising taxes on capital gains for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans -- known as the “trust fund loophole” to make wealthy Americans pay their share on inherited wealth, and also imposing new fees on financial institutions that borrow heavily. The loophole closure mention received only light applause in front of the 4,300 in attendance at the Watertown Civic Arena.

Ahead of his remarks Friday, the president also touted his efforts to help with college affordability in a press release. Those include tax credits for students to cover the cost of tuition, fees and books, increased Pell Grant funding and grant funds for equipment.

Doug Darling, the president at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D., said the “devil is in the details” with the president’s plan. Darling said it would likely be difficult for each state to fund their share.

“In my opinion, it could be feasible,” he said. “With the limited detail I’ve seen so far, each state must also pick up a portion of the costs. I think it will be very difficult to get all states to agree to fund their share.”

He said some larger four-year schools aren’t keen on the plan because it could draw students away from them.

“Many universities look at the plan as a threat to their enrollment numbers,” Darling said. “We proposed having North Dakota freeze tuition at community colleges for two years and our legislature wasn’t interested in even funding that.”


Obama said the efforts of two-year college students in South Dakota represent the pioneering spirit that settled South Dakota.

“The road to freedom begins in the classroom,” he told the graduates.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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