Charlotte has already posted on President Obama’s proposal for free college that he is currently previewing for his 2015 State of the Union Address. But I want to say more about the financial aspect of this newly-proposed entitlement.

The President’s plan is built on a Tennessee plan that if applied nationally would expand access to two years of community college to nine million students across the country, according to the White House’s estimate.

Unlike Trix cereal, according to the President this program is “not for kids.” His proposal would be limited to “responsible” students. Responsible means that they attend school at least half-time to qualify, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make steady progress toward completing their program. Conditions that satisfy the later haven’t been released.

This proposal could cost tens of billions of dollars over a decade. According to the Administration, the grants would cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college and states that choose to participate will be expected to contribute the remaining funds. The full details on how this would be paid for are expected in the President’s budget set for early release next month.

The White House is cheering this proposal as a bold effort to refocus attention on higher education and to reinvigorate the community college system. It’s modeled after a similar scholarship program in Tennessee that provides free community and technical college tuition for two years to all of the state’s high school graduates. More power to the state of Tennessee if it wants to engage in this experiment. States are, as we always say, the laboratory for policy experiments. Extending this Tennessee policy to the nation, however, is a risky and potentially a financial disaster for the taxpayer—especially as the Tennessee program is so recent that we don’ t fully know its outcomes.

The Washington Post reports:

Under a program dubbed America’s College Promise, administration officials said, an estimated 9 million students a year nationwide could benefit. The average tuition savings for a full-time student at a public two-year college was estimated to be $3,800 a year.

The officials declined to provide an estimate of the cost to the federal government, but they said states would be expected to share about a quarter of the overall expense.

In scale, the proposal’s cost appeared likely to range into tens of billions of dollars over a decade. New federal spending, especially of this magnitude, are likely to face stiff resistance by the Republican-controlled Congress.

The nation’s 1,100 community colleges are the most affordable sector of higher education, with tuition and fees for full-time, in-state students typically less than the maximum federal Pell Grant award of $5,730 a year. Those grants help students in financial need. But there are often other expenses — including housing, books and transportation — that can make the total annual cost far higher.

Obama will unveil the idea Friday in a trip to Knoxville, Tenn. There, he will call attention to an access program enacted last year under Gov. Bill Haslam (R). Using state lottery funds, the Tennessee Promise offers to cover whatever tuition bills at community colleges can’t be paid through other public grants.

Community colleges are an important element in our education system. They provide value to students who desire to transition into a four-year college but need a little extra help. They can be a source of skills training for some industries and careers that do not require four-year degrees. They also provide cost savings to students and families while delivering good education. They don’t carry the gravitas of four-year colleges and universities, but where talent often follows money.

It’s interesting to see the White House tap this program for scaling across the country. While well-intentioned, let’s question how this would work on a national level. This proposal is a direct sting at online and for-profit colleges as well as technical or trade schools that have sprung up in recent years and lured students away from traditional community colleges.

The Tennessee program is a year old if so much. It’s worth at least understanding how many of the students who took advantage of the free tuition satisfied the terms of conditions by earning the necessary grades and how many completed their programs within two years. Similarly, are students guaranteed the funds for their first year and if they don’t earn a b-average, they lose the second-year funding? 

This program could very well be a great way to get more students the added higher education they need without flooding four-year colleges with students who may not be prepared or for whom a four-year degree is not the best source of success. However, scaling to a national level may gloss over the unique circumstances that would make the program successful in one state and not another.

The funding source for such a massive initiative is also critical. Tennessee funded this program through gambling revenue. How is the federal government funding this plan? We have yet to see details.

Finally, we should question the value of  taxpayers funding higher ed at new levels. We fund Universal K-12 public schools and yet we’re turning out undereducated and underprepared young people each year to the workforce. We need to assess the value we’re getting for our education dollar before spending more on a massive new program.

This will be one to watch as it unfolds.