President Obama's proposal to make community college free for most students may never get through Congress. But for freshly graduated high school students from Philadelphia's low-income families, that might not matter.

Community College of Philadelphia has decided to help pay their way.

The school is doing away with tuition for all seniors graduating from a city high school this spring who have low-enough family incomes to qualify for federal Pell grants and who meet certain other requirements.

College officials estimate that 440 students will qualify for the program in the first year and by the third year, the number will rise to 845.

"There are far too many students who, even with financial aid, are unable to meet the gap that exists between the financial aid they get and what final tuition would be," college president Donald "Guy" Generals said Friday.

The college will cover the gap between federal and state aid granted to low-income students and the cost of tuition and fees. That's roughly $450 to $500 annually per eligible student, the college estimates. Tuition and fees run about $5,550 a year.

The program, called the "50th Anniversary Scholars," to commemorate the college's founding, will expand "opportunity in a meaningful way for a new generation of Philadelphians," Generals said.

"We do think it will attract more students, which increases enrollment," he said. "For us, that's a good thing."

Many of the college's students are Pell-eligible - more than 70 percent of first-time, full-time students that went there last fall, the college notes.

The program is open to spring graduates who enroll for the following fall term, take a full-time class load, can write at a college level, and are U.S. citizens. Students from public, private, parochial, and charter schools are all eligible.

The community college is in step with a growing trend around the country, as schools look for ways to expand access to higher education for more students.

Philadelphia's effort does not go as far as some others, such as programs in Tennessee, Tulsa, Okla., and Chicago, which do not restrict eligibility to low-income families. Obama's proposal would exclude students from families earning more than $200,000.

"At this point, we didn't think we had the money to cover all of that," Generals said.

The college's foundation - its fund-raising arm - will cover the cost, estimated at $200,000 the first year and $350,000 by the third year, said Gregory Murphy, who is both the college's vice president for institutional advancement and executive director of the foundation.

Fund-raising for endowment

To make the program sustainable over time, the college plans to launch a major fund-raising effort to create a $10 million endowment, Murphy said.

College officials hope to eventually expand the fund to about $40 million so the cost of textbooks also can be covered - another barrier to keeping students enrolled.

"We're at the point where some books are more expensive than the class, which is really extreme," Generals said.

William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia School District superintendent, described the program as "critically important."

Most district students are eligible for Pell grants - the last time it was calculated, 87 percent of students met the federal poverty definition, Hite said.

The money the community college will provide students per semester might not seem like a large amount, the superintendent said.

"It's a sum that many of us would take for granted, but when you are from circumstances of poverty, that becomes a major barrier for some children," he said. "This is significant for our children, and it's exciting that it's happening at the community college. That is where the vast majority of our children who enter college go."

Hieu Nguyen, 21, who dropped out of high school but is now a senior at the "Gateway to College" program based at the college, is eligible for the program - and grateful for it.

"I'm pursuing a career that isn't huge financially and to be able to have this scholarship and not have to worry about paying back a lot of loans helps me out," said Nguyen, who wants to go into counseling or psychology.

'Important building block'

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, called the program an "important step in eliminating barriers to access to college attainment."

"This represents another important building block in supporting the success of all Philadelphia students," she said.

Students will have three years to complete their degree. They must stay enrolled full time and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average at the end of each academic year.

"If you drop below that, you're out," Murphy said. "If you drop out for a semester, you are no longer part of it. What we're looking for here are really motivated students who want to remain a part of this."

Students also must participate in at least one extracurricular activity, meet with an adviser each semester, and participate in a support program.

To be eligible, students by June 1 must file their federal student aid form, known as FAFSA. To learn more go to http://www.ccp.edu/scholars.

ssnyder@phillynews.com 215-854-4693
Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this story.