Obama pitches free community college plan

President Obama officially unveiled his $60 billion proposal to provide two free years of community college to all Americans on Friday, urging lawmakers to put aside their partisan differences and rally around the idea.

“I’m going to send the Congress my plan for free community college,” Obama said. “I hope the Congress will come together to support it, because opening the doors of higher education shouldn’t be a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue.”

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Obama, speaking at a community college in Knoxville, Tenn., where the state’s lottery funds free community college tuition, acknowledged that his plan was “ambitious.”

But, he argued, “no one with drive and discipline should be left out, should be locked out of opportunity.”

"A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class,” Obama said.

Obama noted that in his hometown of Chicago, his former chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, had also worked to pay for free community college.

“If a state with Republican leadership is doing this and a city with Democratic leadership is doing it, how about we all do it?” Obama said.

But Republicans have already signaled opposition to the plan, under which the federal government would pay three quarters of tuition for students enrolled at least half-time who maintain a 2.5 GPA. States would be required to chip in the remainder of the cost — an additional $20 billion over the next 10 years. Full-time students would save an average of $3,800 per year.

Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerTrump starts considering Cabinet Trump's secret weapon is Ivanka Senate Dems introduce Iran sanctions extension MORE (R-Tenn), who travelled to Knoxville aboard Air Force One, said he did not believe a large federal program was the best way to ensure more students had access to community college.

“You’re always better off letting states mimic each other," he said.

A spokesman for House Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerClinton maps out first 100 days The Hill's 12:30 Report Boehner on Cruz: 'Lucifer is back' MORE (R-Ohio) said the proposal “seems more like a talking point than a plan.”

White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz acknowledged Thursday that the proposal was “significant” and that securing funding on either the federal or state level would be an uphill battle.

“States will have to take the initiative to pick it up, so it’s not something we expect to happen overnight,” Muñoz said.

But White House spokesman Eric Schultz depicted the cost as within reason. He argued that Republicans had seemed to “shrug off” a report that a bill redefining full-time employment under ObamaCare would increase the deficit by $53 billion.

“It bothers us,” Schultz said. “Republicans are now spending tens of billions of dollars to take healthcare away from Americans. We are spending tens of billions of dollars to make sure America's young people get an education."

Even if the program has long-shot odds of being passed into law, the announcement has some utility for the White House. The proposal capped off a three-day, three-city tour by Obama to preview his State of the Union address, with White House officials openly acknowledging they hoped to compound the momentum earned late last year.

And Muñoz argued that after the president’s call in past years for Congress to provide universal pre-K to low and moderate income families, some 30 states moved to expand access. The hope, the White House said, is that the president’s call to action could inspire states to move on their own.

White House officials have also noted that the proposal has generated substantial attention online since being unveiled Thursday.

“There’s intensive interest in this since we announced it last night, which I’m gratified by,” Schultz said, noting that a Facebook video announcing the initiative posted Thursday night was the most successful video post to the social network in White House history. More than 6 million people had viewed the video as of Friday afternoon.