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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- President Obama traveled here Friday to make his first full-fledged pitch for tuition-free community college, as White House officials confirmed that the ambitious proposal would cost about $60 billion over the next decade.

Speaking to several hundred students and faculty at Pellissippi State Community College, Obama presented his plan as an economic imperative. He also said it was based on responsibility -- of individual students, of colleges and of states in boosting their spending on higher education.

“This isn’t a blank check. It’s not a free lunch,” Obama said. “But for those who are willing to do the work, and states that want to be a part of this, it can be a game-changer.”

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Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, and Robert Kelchen, an expert on higher education finance, will discuss President Obama's proposal Friday on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free news podcast. Sign up here for notification of new "This Week" podcasts.

The most important player in the short run, though, will be Congress, which needs to approve the $6 billion-a-year proposal.

Obama’s trip to Pellissippi, which is on the western outskirts of Knoxville, comes as part of a several-state tour to preview the themes of his State of the Union address later this month. During the speech he will address a Congress controlled completely by Republicans for the first time in his presidency.

Some of Obama’s largest higher education accomplishments in his first term -- such as boosting spending on federal Pell Grants and switching to 100 percent direct lending, ending federal bank-based student loans -- were hard-fought but approved by a Congress that likely was far friendlier to the administration’s agenda than the current one, controlled completely by Republicans.  

More on the Obama Plan

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  • The president's free community college plan may change the balance between the federal government, states and colleges.

The president’s trip to Tennessee appeared to reflect the new political dynamics the administration faces as it begins its final two years in office. And his visit raised, to some extent, the prospect that college access and affordability is an area on which Obama may be able to work with Congressional Republicans.

The president chose to make his community college pitch in a state that is led by a Republican governor, Bill Haslam, who not only has been praised widely for his innovation in higher education but who has also played ball with the administration.

Haslam last year participated in the White House’s higher education summit. He has praised the U.S. Department of Education's controversial new teacher preparation regulations. And, separately, he is negotiating with the Obama administration on a compromise Medicaid expansion for his state.

Speaking before Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who also made remarks, Haslam alluded to that bipartisanship. He said while Democrats and Republicans may disagree on how to approach income inequality, they can agree that community colleges are vital to economic growth.

In an unusual display, the state’s two Republican senators, both of whom are assuming powerful roles as committee chairmen in the new Congress, traveled with the president to the event.

Obama spoke in a building named after Sen. Lamar Alexander, the former education secretary and governor, who has said he’s open to working with the administration on higher education issues. For his part, Obama said he would join Alexander in seeking to simplify the federal student aid application.

“It just shouldn’t be that hard to apply for aid for college,” Obama said. noting that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, includes more than 100 questions.

“That’s something we should be able to agree on,” he added. “Let’s get that done this year.”

Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker, who is now chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, were seated next to Ted Mitchell, the under secretary who oversees higher education policy at the Education Department. 

Despite the bipartisan overtures on Friday, though, the administration’s’ community college plan will undoubtedly be a tough sell in Congress.

Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee, told reporters after Obama’s speech that he was glad the president was promoting the Tennessee Promise but said he was pursuing the “wrong way” to expand it.

“That’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans,” Alexander said. “Republicans look at a good idea and want to expand it state-by-state. Democrats look at a good idea and want to make it a federal program operated from Washington.”

If states create their own version of the Tennessee program, he said, the boost in community college enrollment would mean the federal government would have to pay for more Pell Grants. Alexander said he would be willing to find the funding to support that increase.

House Republicans went further in criticizing Obama’s plan. Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman said that the idea “seems more like a talking point than a plan.”

Rep. John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House education committee, said in a statement that the president was “proposing yet another multi-billion dollar federal program that will compete with existing programs for limited taxpayer dollars.”

Support from Senate Dems, Trouble for For-Profits?

Some Senate Democrats, meanwhile, rallied around the president’s proposal, which will be formally included as part of the administration’s budget request to Congress next month.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, said she backed the plan.

“Expanding access to college and making it more affordable is a ticket to the middle class for millions of students across the country," she said in a written statement. "I look forward to working with President Obama and my colleagues to make this goal a reality."

Sen. Dick Durbin, an outspoken critic of for-profit education, said he was pleased the president was promoting community colleges as “a more affordable, higher quality alternative to for-profit colleges.”

Many programs at for-profit colleges often compete directly with those at local community colleges. The Obama proposal is aimed both at two-year programs that are a stepping stone to bachelor’s degrees as well as at occupational training certificates.

For-profit analysts said the plan, which is aimed at expanding community college capacity nationwide, would be a negative for the for-profit sector's revenues.

Community college advocates heaped praise on the Obama plan, which they said reflects the most dramatic action yet by this administration to boost their institutions. Some, however, remained concerned about the plan's details, many of which have yet to be released.

Even if the plan fails to attract enough support in Congress, its lasting effect might be in advancing the President’s message that some form of higher education is for everyone.  

In Knoxville, community college officials said one success of their statewide tuition-free program and its county-run predecessor has been a shift in how the public approaches their institutions.  

Pellissippi State President Anthony Wise said that before the programs, the majority of students registered for classes only shortly before they began.

“We’d have kids show up the day before classes,” he said. “It was like: ‘who decided to go to college today?’ ”

The scholarship programs, which require students to commit to attending college far earlier and do more serious planning, he said, have boosted completion rates. 

David Key, who has been a professor of history at Pellissippi State for the past 12 years, looked on from the audience as many of his students stood behind the president during his announcement.

“I think this could become a cornerstone of higher education policy, much like what the Pell Grant was in the past,” he said of the Obama plan. “If our college and our county had a small part to play in that, we’re just proud.”

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