Unlike most of my colleagues on the editorial board, who like the principle of expanded free education but balk at the expense, I think this is a fine idea, and the kind of investment required to make this a better educated and more equitable nation. What is most attractive about Obama's proposal is the statement of broad principle: More Americans should have more access to college educations. We ought to forge ahead.
My preference would be a nationally supported, but locally controlled, tuition-free education system from kindergarten through four years of college. That isn't likely to happen – too big of a step into a headwind of powerful lobbying forces. But adding two years to the existing free education model is digestible financially, and perhaps possible politically (the biggest hurdle to such change). This is the kind of national investment that will pay off in ways measurable – better-educated people tend to get better-paying jobs, adding more fuel to the nation's economic engine – and in ways immeasurable, such as a better-informed and more-engaged electorate.
How to pay for it? One approach: Recalibrate some of our corporate subsidies (hello, Big Oil and coal - $21 billion a year, according to one estimate – and Big Ag – $14 billion a year, per this estimate). Taxpayers for Common Sense count $3.38 billion in the most recent budget for military programs the Pentagon doesn't want (apparent gifts to weapons and other military contractors). We have the money. We just don't spend it on the right things.
What this comes down to is refocusing national priorities. For too long the federal government has put corporate health ahead of community health. While a vibrant economy is important, it is only part of the equation for a stable and thriving society. After a few decades of increased globalization, we are a less economically diverse society than we used to be. Making community college tuition-free won't fix that, but it's a step.
Tuition-free community colleges also confer a sense of expectation on high schoolers that they will, indeed, go on to college, regardless of whether it is the first step to a doctorate or a chance to learn marketable vocational and technical skills to join the workforce. No one would be forced to go on for the extra two years, same as no one is forced to complete high school. But waiving tuition is us, as a society, putting resources into things we value; government spending reflects priorities.
Is this an extra handout from the government? Maybe. But states vary in their compulsory ages for attending school, with many allowing students to drop out after age 16. So they already provide free public education through grade 12, yet only require people attend roughly through their sophomore year, which means states have made the conscious decision to provide 11th and 12th grades as extras (kindergarten isn't required in many states, either). Ultimately, tuition-free community college simply adds a couple of years to what we currently view as a basic education.
And remember, the current basic education doesn't get you what it used to. Given the specialized demands of the modern job market, and the collapse of the kind of blue-collar jobs that once made it possible for a high school graduate to make a comfortable living, these days a high school degree often consigns its holder to a work life of incidental jobs, low wages and short-circuited social mobility. It takes a post-secondary education to get anywhere in modern America, and as a society we should make it easier to obtain one.
Usually free tuition or tuition aid programs are designed to help lower-income students afford a higher education. That remains a fine and necessary goal, and there are other existing programs (that can be expanded) such as Pell Grants to make it easier for people to live while they study. Poverty is a separate issue from broadening the free education model. It will remain an issue regardless of whether Obama's proposal gets through Congress. But making the community college system tuition-free removes one of the expenses completely, so it has a direct benefit to low-income students (though that varies by state; California is already pretty generous with tuition waivers for those in financial need).
So why extend free tuition to students who can afford the bill? For the same reason we provide free K-12 education to all: It is a national statement of principle. If the wealthy want to take advantage of the free education system, they should be able to, same as for K-12 schools (we don't expect the wealthy to send their children to private primary and secondary schools just because they can afford to).
Ultimately, this is less an argument about tax dollars and whether the rich should be entitled to use an expanded free education system. This is about what we want our nation to be. Right now, we are a disjointed, disconnected people due, in part, to decades of government and corporate policies. Few think this is a good situation, and some fear this dichotomy is a recipe for social upheaval (a bit of a stretch, to my mind). At the very least, we live in a country that rewards those who have already achieved financial success while making it harder for the lower and middle classes to just tread water, let alone achieving some social mobility.
Free community college won't change that, but it's a step in the right direction.