In Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama showed a serious desire to implement his plan of two years of tuition-free community college for young people who are, as he put it, “willing to work for it.” His initiative has been stirring some controversy in Washington, D.C., and beyond ever since he first made his ideas public. 

Obama’s goal isn’t novel and has striking similarities to University of Richmond President Ed Ayers' Richmond Guarantee.

Obama’s proposal, now dubbed America’s College Promise, and the Richmond Guarantee, Richmond’s guarantee for one summer of internship or research funding, both share the same linear objective: to make educational opportunities equal to everyone, regardless of family income.

It is no secret that family income plays a large factor in college enrollment. According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics study, the average price of attending a four-year college is $37,800 annually for private, nonprofit institutions and $14,300 for public institutions. These exorbitant prices have led to extreme inequality in educational opportunities in the U.S. According to the NCES, 50.9 percent of recent, low-income "high school completers" (high school graduates or people who completed an equivalent degree and are ages 16-24) attended a two- or four-year college in 2012, compared with 80.7 percent of people from high-income families.

The job market, like higher education, often requires a certain level of income in order to be competitive. Nowadays, it is difficult to compete for a job without having held prior internship positions. The problem is that many of these internships are unpaid, and thus, only those who can afford to work an unpaid job will gain the advantage. Unless interns can commute from home, they often become responsible for rent, housing and other basic living expenses.

“This summer, I interned with a small, interior design firm in Chicago. I was responsible for paying for my own housing and meals outside of work,” junior Dorothy Jacobs said. “The Richmond Guarantee would have helped me this summer. It would have been nice to feel as if I wasn't wasting my summer spending money, rather than making money.”

The Richmond Guarantee allows students to avoid Jacobs’ situation and complete unpaid internships without fear of spending money that they do not have. It allows students of all income levels the opportunity to accept the internship of their choice, without stipulations.

Although the intentions may be the same, America’s College Promise faces many challenges that the Richmond Guarantee does not.

First, according to an NCES study, only one-quarter of students who entered a public community college in the fall of 2003 earned any type of certificate or associate’s degree. How much of this number can be attributed to ability to pay tuition? Is it fair to pay for such an unpromising program with taxpayer’s money? 

Many have criticized Obama’s plan for not putting money where it is needed most. High schools in low-income areas consistently perform poorly on standardized tests, and the students are not prepared for two- or four-year college. Instead of directing money to community colleges, the money should be directed toward improving performances in high schools.

The second challenge is that America’s College Promise requires approval from a Republican-led Congress that is unlikely to approve a plan that would cost $60 billion over the next 10 years. The Richmond Guarantee will begin this year, and the implementation was far less controversial, as the funding comes from a private university.

Both the Richmond Guarantee and America’s College Promise focus on solving the inherent income inequality in summer opportunities and high education, respectively. Tom Hanks recently published an op-ed in the New York Times. He wrote that community college made him the man he is today and focused on the fact that tuition was free. Although America’s College Promise has many issues, it addresses a major problem in higher education that must be solved.

Contact reporter Hunter Ross at hunter.ross@richmond.edu