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Free community college: Excitement, doubts as news of Obama's tuition plan spreads

Vice-President Joe Biden shakes hands with President Barack Obama Friday after introducing him at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Obama promoted his college plan.
Vice-President Joe Biden shakes hands with President Barack Obama Friday after introducing him at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Obama promoted his college plan.

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Word of President Obama’s new initiative to offer qualified applicants a free, two-year community college education drew cheers, but also some skepticism on Friday.

The president's proposal could substantially increase access to higher education for many in California, which has the largest community college system in the country, serving more than 2 million students at 112 colleges. 

The state's community colleges are a primary gateway to four-year colleges: about a third of University of California graduates and half of California State University degree-holders begin at a community college.

"Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few," Obama said in a speech Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee.

RELATED: Should community college be free?

But even while it rolled out of the chute, the Obama plan came under criticism for its projected $60 billion cost over 10 years, a price tag that a Republican Congress allergic to expensive new programs will likely resist.

Some 9 million students could eventually qualify for the program, the White House said, saving a national average of $3,800 in tuition per year for full-time students. To qualify, students will need at least a 2.5 grade point average and make progress toward a degree or certificate.

At Los Angeles City College, 25-year-old engineering student Kelvin Dickson said he was thrilled when he learned of Obama's announcement from a friend. He said he thought the new initiative could be a game changer for those wishing to attend college.

"I think a lot more people will go," he said. "I know that was one of the reasons why I didn’t go initially, because of the cost. I thought it was too much to afford."

The prospect of free tuition reminded Dickson of his own winding journey to get a higher degree.

He dropped out of an EMT program at UCLA after high school, unable to keep up with expenses. He said he bounced around several hotel jobs downtown, then got back to school after having a child, which qualified him for state assistance with tuition through CalWORKS.

Now he's looking at jobs in the oil industry and hopes to transfer to Stanford's School of Engineering.

North Hollywood resident David Allsop, a political science major at the same school, also welcomed the news, but with less enthusiasm.

"Like most of the Obama ideas, it sounds good. Let’s see what happens with this one," Allsop said.

Under the proposal, the federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost and states 25 percent, if they choose to participate.

“We will be looking at the proposal in more detail, but our first reaction is that we are very excited about the president’s plan to provide more opportunities for students to attend community colleges," said Brice W. Harris, California Community Colleges chancellor, in a statement. "We look forward to working with the White House as the proposal takes shape.”

It isn't clear how much California would need to cover its share of the program if it joins in — or if any money would be available. On the same day Obama promoted his initiative, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a 2015-2016 budget plan that he called "precariously balanced" given the state's heavy obligations. 

A major influx of students could also tax universities and colleges that say they lack the instructors and classes to enroll many who apply and qualify. Moving current students to graduation quickly when courses they require aren't available remains another challenge.

Still, the promise of free tuition would be a major help for students who can't afford the expense of college, fail to qualify for financial aid or scholarships or face other money issues, even though tuition can be more affordable in California than many other states.

As of fall 2012-2013, the average in-state tuition for two-year colleges in California stood at about $1,200, well below the national average of $2,792, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. California community colleges currently charge $46 a unit, not counting fees, or $1,104 for 24 units in an academic year. 

"Yes, particularly in California, it's still low-cost, but that's all relative to a family that's living day-to-day," Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College, told KPCC's Take Two on Friday. 

Oakley said Long Beach City College offers a free semester to graduates of area high schools, helping students who may be the first-generation immigrants and from high-poverty areas — among those that could also benefit from the president's proposal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.