Before President Obama landed in East Tennessee on Friday, a spokesman explained the purpose of the trip to reporters. The 5.5-hour visit included stops at Pellissippi State Community College in Hardin Valley and manufacturer Techmer PM in Clinton. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Congressman John J. Duncan Jr. were guests, and so was Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
Eric Schultz, principal deputy press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill would unveil the president’s plan to make two years of community college free for all responsible students no matter their age during the East Tennessee trip. It was a preview of a “cornerstone” of the president’s State of the Union to Congress on January 20.
The community college proposal was inspired by a similar program in the Volunteer State called the Tennessee Promise.
Schultz said the president believes the success of the Tennessee program is something that should be available to all 50 states, so he wants to make it a national program “to make sure that young people, no matter if they’re in Tennessee or any other state, have access to a higher education.”
Seventy-five percent of the funding would come from the federal government, and the rest would come from the states.
Schultz said cost details would be released in the president’s budget in a few weeks, but it could cost roughly $60 billion over 10 years. The president believes that’s worthwhile, Schultz said, “because we need to make sure that America’s young people are getting the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.”
As of 10 a.m. Friday, Schultz said, more than 5.7 million people had viewed the video that the White House released at 6 p.m. Thursday. And 21.1 million people had been reached with a Facebook post.
“So we are very gratified by the interest,” he said. “I can also tell you that this was the most successful White House Facebook post ever that we’ve done.”
Here’s more information, including questions and answers about the president’s proposal, from an edited version of a transcript from the conversation between Schultz and reporters aboard Air Force One:
Schultz:…The president believes now is the time to make two years of college as universal as high school. This proposal is part of the President’s vision for how we can continue to lead the world economically in the 21st century and to help grow the middle class.
Specifically, we’re headed to Tennessee right now because Governor Haslam launched a program to provide free community college to all Tennessee students over a year ago. In its first year, almost 90 percent of graduating high school seniors applied. The Tennessee Promise program served as an inspiration for the president’s proposal. It demonstrates that this proposal that we’re talking about today is both ambitious and achievable.
In addition, today the president is also going to announce the American Technical Training Fund. This fund is designed to help high-potential, low-wage workers gain the skills they need to work in fields with significant numbers of middle-class jobs such as IT, energy, and advanced manufacturing.
Lastly, later today we’re going to travel to Clinton to announce the latest manufacturing hub, a series of public-private partnerships aimed at boosting advanced manufacturing, fostering innovation, and attracting well-paying jobs that will strengthen the middle class. This is also going to be an occasion for the cynics amongst us to memorialize it—at the end of last year, Congress came together in a bipartisan bill to pass support for the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. As you know, the legislation proves that strengthening American manufacturing is something that we can all agree on.
Reporter question: Senators Alexander and Corker are on board today. Does this imply some level of support for the program the president is announcing today?
Schultz: Yes, thank you for asking. Senators Corker, Alexander, and Congressman Duncan are all on the flight with us today. You’ll have to ask them for their position on this. We do appreciate the bipartisan interest in this. Obviously, this is something that was spearheaded by a Republican governor in Tennessee. There’s a similar program under Mayor Emanuel in Chicago. So we believe—we take Republicans at their word when they say that there’s interest in education, and so we look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans on this.
Reporter question: Has the White House team been talking to members of Congress about this at all? Is the president talking to these two senators about it today?
Schultz: Sure. We’re in constant touch with Republicans and Democrats on the Hill on this. Obviously, the national conversation on this starts today, so I don’t have a very detailed legislative strategy to read out to you at this moment, but this is something we’re going to be working hard on.
Reporter question: Let me just ask you this other question. This morning in a statement, Senator Alexander said that he didn’t think a new federal program was necessary to support federalization of the Tennessee Promise but that he did think he would—it sounded like he would be supportive of expanding the Pell Grant program. I don’t know exactly what you guys have in mind, but does that seem to dovetail with what the president is thinking?
Schultz: The president believes that it is time to make college education the norm, and that about 100 years ago this country decided that high school would be the norm and that now is the time to make sure that all Americans, regardless of age, have access to higher education. So that’s what he’s focused on, in particular because we need to make sure America’s young people have the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.
Reporter question: But I do think—I think there was a Tennessee congresswoman maybe who issued a statement yesterday who said, look, good idea, I like what happened in Tennessee, but we don’t want a one-size-fits-all, federal, top-down program, that, like, the reason it worked is because it works for Tennessee. Is there—I mean, this does seem like it opens the administration up to that same kind of criticism, that what they want to do is impose top-down solutions.
Schultz: Well, the president believes the success we’ve seen in Tennessee is something that should be available to all 50 states. And so that’s why the president wants to make this a national program, to make sure that young people, no matter if they’re in Tennessee or any other state, have access to a higher education.
Reporter question: In the Tennessee program, students can apply for aid beyond what they would get through grants. Is that the president’s intention as well, or does he intend to have this program just cover the tuition without applying for grants?
Schultz: So for details on this I’m going to refer you to the Department of Education, but, yes—largely, the full two years of their college education will be paid for. And again, that’s 75 percent by the federal government and the rest remaining from the states.
Reporter question: And how would you pay for this program?
Schultz: We are going to release those details in the president’s budget, which will be released on time in a few weeks. I do know that there’s intensive interest in this since we announced it last night, which I’m gratified by. I can tell you that over 5.7 million people viewed the video that we released last night at six o’clock. As of 10 a.m. this morning, 5.7 million people viewed it; 21.1 million people had been reached with that Facebook post. So we are very gratified by the interest. I can also tell you that this was the most successful White House Facebook post ever that we’ve done. Given the interest in the cost, I wanted to let you know that it is going to be roughly $60 billion over 10 years.
Reporter question: Sixty? 6-0?
Schultz: Yes. That is a significant investment. But again, it’s one the president believes is worthwhile, because we need to make sure that America’s young people are getting the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy. And there’s no better ticket to the middle class than a college education.
Reporter question: That $60 billion is the federal piece—the 75 percent?
Reporter question: To follow on that, would that be done as a mandatory program? Meaning anybody who’s eligible for it would get funding on the mandatory side of the budget? Or is this is a discretionary program of Congress annually appropriating funds, possible fewer funds?
Schultz: I will have to check on that.
Reporter question: So you guys describe this as sort of the beginning of a conversation. Do you see this as a fully baked program, or something that you want to discuss and could change significantly in the coming weeks and months?
Schultz: I will say that President has a pretty clear vision of what he wants to do, which is inspire—we’ve been forthcoming that this has been inspired by the Tennessee program. That said, we are starting a national conversation today in just a few hours about how we can expand college access for all Americans.
Reporter question: Putting a fine point on it, that would leave states responsible for $20 billion over 10 years?
Schultz: I want to say the federal share of this will be $60 billion over 10 years. I also want to say that just a day ago Republicans seemed to shrug off their own congressional budget, finding that $53 billion would be added onto the deficit if their work week bill were to pass. They shrugged that off; they said it didn’t bother them. It bothers us.
And what I would like to say is that Republicans are now spending tens of billions of dollars to take health care away from a million Americans. We’re spending tens of billions of dollars to make sure America’s young people get an education. We feel like that distinction is worthwhile.
Reporter question: Do you think that the Republican Congress would support the president’s request for that appropriation?
Schultz: Again, we take Republicans at their word. I know several of them in leadership and some of the new freshmen have said that education is a priority. So we take them at their word on that. Obviously, this is a program that has had bipartisan support at the state and local level. We look forward to building on that.