Standing room only at Pellissippi State as Obama pushes to make community college free for all (video)

President Barack Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville.

Megan Boehnke

Knoxville News Sentinel

En route to Pellissippi State, pockets of local residents lined Alcoa Highway with cameras and signs. At least a hundred people gathered at the intersection of Alcoa Highway and Hardin Valley Road, and more stood across the street from the campus.

Bundled in coats, hats and gloves, most locals along the motorcade route seemed to be supporters. They held hand-made signs that read "President Obama shake our hand" and "We love our president."

At least one, however, was a fan of the vice president: "Joe Biden is my spirit animal."

The motorcade arrived at the college at about 12:45.

At Pellissippi State, it was standing room only in an auditorium that seats 495 people inside a building named for Sen. Lamar Alexander.

Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker, Rep. John J. Duncan Jr, Gov. Bill Haslam, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett were all in the audience.

Jill Biden spoke first at about 1:45 p.m.. She told the crowd: "I am not a politician, I am an English professor." It got a big applause from the room.

Behind her were about 100 Pellissippi State students and faculty, who stood on risers beneath alternating U.S. and Tennessee flags. Jill Biden introduced her husband, who got a kick out of the idea that his wife would say she worked for him along with the President.

As Biden described students who teens who cannot afford a four-year school, a single woman who wants to provide for her children a woman in the audience said "Amen."

photo President Barack Obama steps from Marine One before boarding Air Force One, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Tennessee.

"That's a hard thing," Biden said. "That's a hard, hard thing for someone to do."

Biden introduced Obama, who were greeted with loud cheers. Obama shook hands with faculty and students standing on the risers before greeting the vice president and second lady.

Obama began speaking at 2:05, when he made a 2-minute statement on the terrorist attack in Paris.

"France is our oldest ally, I want people of France to know us stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow," he said.

Obama went on officially announce what he called "one of my most important State of the Union proposals" to make community college free for students of all ages across the country.

"We do expect everyone can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them," Obama said. "We don't expect anyone to be bound by the circumstances of the birth. If we did, I wouldn't be here. Neither would Joe."

Obama, in his speech, said he spoke to Alexander on Air Force One about the senator's push to simplify the FAFSA form and hopes to accomplish that this year. Alexander held a round table on that issue at Pellissippi State in October.

photo President Barack Obama, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and U.S. House of Representative for Tennessee's 2nd district John Duncan Jr., top, leaves Air Force One after arriving Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Alcoa, Tenn.

When Obama said he proposes bringing the cost of community college "to zero," the room erupted in a standing ovation. Obama pointed to Gov. Bill Haslam's Tennessee Promise and announced he plans to call his proposal "America's College Promise."

After his speech, Obama and Biden both greeted audience members in the front row. Among them was Pellissippi State student Zachary Bowling, who is in his final semester, and the children of Pellissippi State President Anthony Wise, Jeremey, 17, and Adam, 11.

"It was very, very cool," Adam Wise said of shaking the president's hand.

Previous AP story:

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama wants publicly funded community college available to all Americans, a sweeping, multibillion-dollar proposal that would make higher education as accessible as a high school diploma to boost weak U.S. wages and skills for the modern workforce.

The program is expected to cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, and it faces a Republican Congress averse to big new spending programs. Obama was promoting the idea on Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville a follow-up to a video message posted to Facebook Thursday evening.

"Put simply, what I'd like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it," Obama said in the video. He spoke seated on the front of his desk from his office aboard Air Force One, in the midst of a three-day tour to preview the agenda he'll be outlining in his Jan. 20 in the State of the Union address.

"It's something that we can accomplish, and it's something that will train our work force so that we can compete with anybody in the world," Obama said.

The White House estimated that 9 million students could eventually participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year if they attend full-time. Students would qualify if they attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA 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 and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program. Schultz said Obama will announce new programs to fully fund the federal portion of the program in his budget next month.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama proposed universal preschool, which Congress did not take up because of cost. Obama policy adviser Cecilia Munoz pointed out that even without federal action, many states are taking up the idea and expanding preschool.

And she pointed out that a Republican -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam -- last year signed into law a pioneering scholarship program called Tennessee Promise that provides free community and technical college tuition for two years. It has drawn 58,000 applicants, almost 90 percent of the state's high school seniors. Munoz said Obama's proposal, America's College Promise, was inspired by the popular Tennessee plan and a similar program in Chicago.

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. He and fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker then joined Obama on Air Force One for the trip and huddled together mid-flight.

Obama also was being joined on the trip by Vice President Joe Biden. They also planned to visit a manufacturing facility, Techmer PM in Clinton, Tennessee, to promote a second proposal to create a fund to help low-wage workers with high potential get training in growing fields like energy, information technology and advanced manufacturing.