President Barack Obama on Friday proposed making community college free for students who are enrolled at least half-time and make good grades, but the plan almost immediately got pushback from Republican leaders who questioned how to pay for it.

“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 Friday in a speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee.

The move was praised by the head of Maine’s seven-campus community college system, which enrolls about 18,100 students.

“It sounds like a very excellent opportunity for Maine and the nation,” system President John Fitzsimmons said. “I couldn’t think of a greater gift to the people of Maine.”

The proposal, which is estimated to cost about $60 billion over 10 years, is called America’s College Promise and is modeled after the Tennessee Promise, which Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law last year to provide free community and technical college tuition for two years. It has drawn 58,000 applicants, almost 90 percent of Tennessee’s high school seniors.

The White House estimated that 9 million students could eventually participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. Students would qualify if they attend at least half time, maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program. Participating schools would have to meet certain academic requirements.

The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost, with the remaining 25 percent coming from participating states. Funding details will be released next month with the president’s budget proposal.

Fitzsimmons said Friday the proposal would cost Maine about $7 million a year.

He acknowledged that it would be a challenge to find state money, but noted deep support among lawmakers for preparing Mainers for the workforce.

“Like all things coming out of Washington, there’s a lot of skepticism about it,” he said. “But on the big-policy side of it, we have to ask, where are we getting our workforce? If we do look at it like that, there will be more people in support of it than not. We can have a really healthy dialogue about it in the state of Maine.”

About 70 percent of the system’s academic programming is for occupational careers or fields, Fitzsimmons said.

Gov. Paul LePage did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. The state’s acting education commissioner also declined to comment, a spokeswoman said.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary who is set to take over the Senate committee that oversees education, said states and not the federal government should follow Tennessee’s lead. He said Washington’s role should be to reduce paperwork for the student aid application and fund Pell grants for low-income students that would result from an expansion of community college enrollment.

“The reason Tennessee can afford Tennessee Promise is that 56 percent of our state’s community college students already have a federal Pell grant, which averages $3,300, to help pay for the average $3,800-per-year tuition. The state pays the difference — $500 on average,” Alexander said in a written statement. Tennessee funds the program through lottery revenue.

Fitzsimmons said 50 percent of Maine’s 18,100 community college students get Pell grants, and 82 percent get some form of financial aid. Tuition is $3,400 a year.

State Democratic leaders endorsed the proposal.

“President Obama is right to bring forward a bold initiative to help more students and workers get the skills and training they need for the jobs of the future,” House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a statement. “Right now, Maine’s economy and our workers are struggling. We have an opportunity to invest in our students and workers while also helping our businesses and middle class families succeed.”

Several Republican members of the state legislature’s education committee supported the idea.

“We definitely have to tackle the cost of higher education and if we can do that for $7 million, that seems like something we should try to do,” said Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta. “It’s definitely a bold move and it will take a lot of political will to make it happen.”

Sen. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, said he was a “strong supporter” of community colleges.

“I would certainly look at this as something we could hopefully work out,” he said.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation said they liked the idea, but wanted more information on how it would work and how to pay for it.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, expects that the president’s proposal will be one of many they consider that aims to make college more accessible and more affordable.

“We must do all we can to keep the doors to higher education open and accessible to all students, particularly those who are most economically disadvantaged. Community colleges are vital partners in our higher education system,” Collins said in a statement. “I will be interested in learning more details, including how the administration would pay for its proposal and what the financial implications would be for states.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, said it was “a good idea,” but the cost was concerning.

“Anything that helps people break into post-secondary education is a real positive,” he said. “What I think is important is that the president is in the right target zone. He’s given us a lofty goal.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, 1st District, and Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, 2nd District, also said they supported community colleges and wanted to see the details of the proposal.

“Cost is still a big issue for a lot of people, so I’m in favor of anything that makes it easier for students to afford to go to college,” Pingree said. “I’m interested to see the details of the president’s proposal in his budget request, but in general it seems like a good idea.”

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