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Paying for College

Free Community College for All?

It would require a lot of money and student mentorship programs.

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Community college has long been an affordable alternative to a four-year degree. So when President Obama recently announced a plan to offer two years of community college at no cost to students, Americans’ ears perked up. Some states and cities already pick up the tab for select students, and these programs offer clues about what a federal program might look like.

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States that help cover college costs for eligible students include Georgia, New Jersey and Tennessee; cities include Chicago, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, N.Y. The programs vary, but most limit funding based on family income and kick in after federal and state aid is exhausted. Many programs require students to earn good grades—in high school, while enrolled at the community college, or both.

For such programs to work, they need sufficient financial backing, quality controls and tools to help students perform well, says Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. For example, Tennessee’s program, which launches this year and is open to all in-state residents, includes a mentorship program to help students graduate.

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But funding can be a problem. To save money, New Jersey scaled back its program in 2009 to cover fewer students. A plan on the drawing board in Michigan would cover tuition at the state’s participating community colleges and public universities, but it would require students to pay a portion of their future earnings to finance the program.

With a $60 billion price tag over 10 years and a Republican-led Congress, Obama’s plan is unlikely to be approved anytime soon. But students can explore other low-cost options for furthering their education or boosting their careers by earning nondegree credentials—for example, at computer-coding boot camps or by enrolling in certificate programs sponsored by community colleges and companies such as Microsoft.