Note: This story was last updated at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 15.
HARDIN VALLEY—It was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for some, a chance to shake hands with the president of the United States of America or wave at his heavily guarded motorcade as it passed by on a local roadway.
For others, it was a chance to hear about a presidential proposal modeled after a Tennessee program that would make the first two years of community college free to students who maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average. That proposal, officially announced at Pellissippi State Community College in Hardin Valley on Friday, expands on the 20th century idea that all children in the United States are entitled to a public education. In the 21st century economy, the White House said, 12 years of school is no longer enough.
For a much-smaller group, Friday’s visit by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and his wife Jill Biden offered an opportunity to hear an in-person announcement of a new advanced manufacturing hub, the country’s fifth, that will be led by the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and have Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a founding partner. That announcement at Techmer PM in Clinton was highlighted by a 3-D printed carbon fiber replica of a Shelby Cobra that the president joked about receiving for his birthday.
The community college proposal is called America’s College Promise. It’s modeled on the Tennessee Promise, which is less than one year old and is, in turn, modeled on tnAchieves, a six-year-old program that started in Knox County.
Many described the president’s community college proposal, which had been informally announced ahead of his 5.5-hour visit on Friday afternoon, as a “game changer.”
Obama said a high school education is no longer enough.
“You’ve got to get some higher education,” the president said during a half-hour speech at Pellissippi State, where he was greeted by bluegrass music and a standing-room-only crowd in the Clayton Arts Performing Center and left, after shaking hands with students and guests, thronged by Secret Service agents as Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” blared over the PA system.
Obama said the community college proposal is one of the most important to be included in his State of the Union before Congress on January 20. Federal officials said the proposal could benefit roughly nine million students each year, and a full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.
“For millions of Americans, community colleges are the pathway to the middle class,” Obama said. “So, today I’m announcing an ambitious new plan to bring down the cost of community college. I want to bring it down to zero. I want to make it free. Community college should be free for those who work for it.
“Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today.”
He gave credit for the idea to Tennessee leaders, including Governor Bill Haslam, who proposed and pushed Tennessee Promise through the General Assembly last year. The president wants a similar program made available in all 50 states.
“The good news, you already do something like this in Tennessee,” Obama said. “Why not just build on what works?”
The White House said 57,000 students representing almost 90 percent of the state’s high school graduating class applied for Tennessee Promise in the first year. It provides two years of community college or technical school tuition-free for any student graduating from a Tennessee high school. The class of 2015 will be the first class eligible to take advantage of it.
But the federal program won’t be a “free lunch” or “blank check,” the president said. Among the requirements: Students would have to attend a community college at least half-time and maintain good grades.
Obama said he also wanted to “take a page out of Tennessee’s playbook” with regard to trade schools.
“We’ve got to make sure workers have the chance to get those skills,” he said, adding that he will send his plan to Congress in a few weeks and could propose skills training that won’t require student loans.
“It can be a game-changer,” Obama said of his education proposal, and part of a move to have America lead the world in education again.
But it’s not clear if Congress, which is now controlled by Republicans, will approve the president’s plan. Some suggested a state-by-state expansion would be appropriate, as opposed to a new federal program.
Obama, who is a Democrat, pointed out that local versions of a free community college plan have been approved by Republicans in Tennessee and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat.
“Opening the doors to higher education shouldn’t be a Democratic or Republican issue,” he said. “It’s an American issue.”
Obama said businesses are mobile now and will locate where they can find the most skilled and educated workforce.
“I want them to look no further than the United States of America,” he said.
Seventy-five percent of the community college proposal would be funded by the federal government. States would cover the rest. The proposal has been estimated to cost $60 billion over 10 years.
The White House said an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree by 2020, and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree.
Obama also vowed on Friday to collaborate on another “good, bipartisan” idea: a proposal that has the backing of Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who is now chair of the Senate education committee, to shrink the size of the federal student financial aid form, or FAFSA.
“Let’s shrink it down,” Obama said. “Let’s make it easier for middle class families. We’re not going to agree on everything, but simplifying that form—that’s something we can agree on.”
The manufacturing hub announced by Obama on Friday is a $259 million advanced composites manufacturing project known as the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, or IACMI. The six core partner states—Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee—will work with a 122-member consortium that includes industry leaders, universities, and national laboratories such as ORNL.
In addition to $189 million in funding from those partners, $70 million came from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
At Techmer, Obama said ORNL created the design and manufacturing process for the 3-D printed Shelby Cobra, Techmer produced the composite materials, another company called Tru-Design developed the surface finishing techniques, and undergraduates from UT worked on it.
Hundreds stood outside in line before the president’s speech at 2 p.m. Friday inside the Lamar Alexander Arts and Sciences Building at Pellissippi State. Thousands more lined the route from Pellissippi State down Pellissippi Highway in Knox County, Edgemoor Road and Melton Lake Drive in Oak Ridge, and Oak Ridge Turnpike/State Route 95/State Route 61 in Oak Ridge, Anderson County, and Clinton.
One family painted a giant American flag on their steeply sloped front lawn next to Highway 61 in Anderson County.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for many people, myself included,” said Alesia Orren, an education professor at Maryville College and volunteer at Friday’s speech at Pellissippi State.
Others were pleased by the president’s proposal and proud of its Tennessee roots.
“It’s really a game-changer,” said Darrell Freeman, a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees all state colleges except for the University of Tennessee system. “Education is the great equalizer.”
Officials said the Tennessee Promise and programs like it are already having, or will have, a long-term positive impact on colleges, including Roane State Community College, which has a branch campus in Oak Ridge.
“This is exciting news,” said Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, who attended Friday’s speech at Pellissippi State and said the new education initiatives validated the work years ago to build a Roane State campus in the city. “This is an exciting element, and it’s going to be good for us.”
Some who attended Friday’s speech agreed wholeheartedly with the president.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Jose Rodriguez, a Pellissippi State graduate. “Everyone should have access to higher education.”
See reaction to the president’s visit and speech by U.S., Tennessee, and community college officials here.