During the industrial age, when high school was the gateway to the American dream, public-school systems covered the costs of earning a diploma. Today, however, as associate’s degrees have replaced high-school diplomas as the indispensable ticket into the middle class, families are forced to cover the costs of tuition and more. If the information-age economy demands a workforce with additional training, we need to begin cutting students and families the same deal: Anyone willing to work hard and earn the degree should be able to attend community college—for free.
With that basic bargain in mind, a small band of mayors and governors has begun working to spark a quiet revolution in American education. We believe that associate’s degrees should be as accessible for the next 80 years as high-school diplomas have been for the past 80. So the City of Chicago has joined Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee in experimenting with ways to make community college free. Three years in, we’re starting to develop a clearer picture of how this can work.
Because Washington has yet to shed any real light on how best to do this, each state and city has taken a different tack. Under the terms of the Chicago Star Scholarship, a program that has already enrolled more than 6,000 students, we tied eligibility to academic achievement. If a student at a local public high school maintains a B average, the City will provide a free associate’s degree at a local community college, regardless of immigration status. Then, through a program we call Star Plus, students who have maintained that 3.0 GPA are eligible to receive subsidized tuition at 18 of the four-year colleges located in Chicago, enabling many to graduate debt-free.