When President Obama announced last week that he wanted to make community college free, many were instantly skeptical. Does free really mean free? If students aren’t paying, who is?

It’s true that the current proposal is incomplete. Obama’s initiative would use federal funds to cover a large portion of the “average” cost of attendance but generally leaves states to cover the rest, and it’s not clear exactly how this will be financed or whether it can even get through Congress. But yes, in theory, the government can make two-year community college tuition-free for all.

As Mike Konczal points out, compared to the employment and social benefits to be yielded from higher education investments in the long-term, the actual investment per pupil is feasible. The Obama administration estimates that if the program is fully implemented with state support, 9 million students would be subsidized with the equivalent of roughly $3,800 per year. The model for this initiative is a new free community college program in Tennessee that has drawn tens of thousands of applicants, disproportionately students of color.

There are conditions: programs would need to meet certain academic or job training criteria, while students would need to maintain a decent grade-point average. But the more significant fine print is the question of what other new costs will be introduced by this big down-payment on college.

Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin, one of the education scholars whose research influenced Obama’s plan, tells The Nation via e-mail that she anticipates that “total enrollment will increase and some of that will be from people…who otherwise wouldn’t go to college at all,” and completion rates should also rise. Great, but now the task is ensuring students are supported enough to stay on track.

Although community college is relatively the cheapest and most accessible rung in higher education, economic hardship currently poses a major barrier to college access and completion of programs. Yet tuition and fees are only a piece of the equation.

Critics note that the cost of attendance also involves the cost of, for example, daycare that frees up a single mother to attend afternoon classes, or the income supports she needs to switch her day job schedule to part-time hours.

Moreover, from the standpoint of faculty and staff, some fear, quite rationally, this will subsidize only one piece of the system—generally the cheapest—while other funding for four-year programs will continue to erode. At the very least, Obama’s funding proposal could help redirect federal grant funds away from shoddy for-profit corporate colleges. But that means states must invest deeper to address longstanding budget deficits and avoid the tuition hikes, downsizing and privatization schemes that have accompanied years of public disinvestment in higher education.

Universalizing higher education and raising graduation rates requires state and federal investment in hiring more faculty and support staff, and targeting funds toward struggling students with myriad unmet needs. A more supportive learning environment is desperately lacking on campuses in communities ravaged by poverty and unemployment, where local K-12 schools have also suffered from massive budget gaps.

Reflecting on free college initiatives already being piloted on the local level, Holyoke Community College Dean Matt Reed has recommended that “free community college” programs involve more leveraging of federal funds to push states to invest more with “a commitment by states to return their funding levels to those of, say, the late 1990’s? In return, colleges could not increase their tuition or fees for a set amount of time.”

Community colleges are tasked with not only educating the most disadvantaged students, but helping them cope with myriad burdens, including poverty, family caregiving, health issues, immigration problems, and for older adult students, perhaps past student debt loads, that hinder future prospects. These stressors could drag down grades and leave them ineligible for the new proposed program.

Community colleges must scale up interventions designed to bridge these gaps, starting with innovative support programs that have already proven successful. At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, students needing extra support in English coursework were provided with an “accelerated learning program,” in which “students and their instructor spend six hours per week together, and half of that time is in a small section of just 10 students.” The student success rate was more than double that of a traditional developmental course.

Yet these program innovations aren’t a novel idea and such personalized attention is standard at many elite liberal arts institutions. But community colleges have historically been relegated to a lower-grade standard: defunding leaves schools chronically understaffed and lacking basic support for programming and infrastructure. And they may soon absorb millions more new students, with countless more social and educational needs.

So “free” does not mean fair in higher education. But aiming for universality is a step forward. The fact that the proposed program does not focus on dividing students according to neediness (reducing education funding to a welfare program) is the cornerstone. Leaving aside the rhetoric about “job creation” and “human capital,” there are net social benefits from lengthening the public education process beyond universal K-12 (just as universal pre-K helps kids at the other end of the system)—more access to education helps marginalized communities cope with pervasive inequality and advance across generations.

But real universality means ensuring universal equity as well, and any initial tuition investment should spur new thinking around making higher education a standard part of public education.

We don’t know what kind of additional investments will be needed to complete the universality puzzle or what unanticipated costs the initiative may bring to higher education systems. But Goldrick-Rab says, the plan brings a social imperative into the public education policy arena: “It is time for the nation to move to making college free, and this is about beginning to work out how that can happen. Same thing happened a century ago [for] high school.”

But one century on, we’re still struggling to make good on the promise of universal public education up to grade 12, and the inadequacies of the current community college system reflect those inadequacies. Obama’s proposal has gotten many talking about improving students’ college completion rates. But the focus should be on the government’s completion rates for the promises it has made year after year, to students in every phase of their educational development—and always failed to make the grade.