A Simple Proposal to Revive the American Dream

High school is free. Community college should be, too.

Silhouette of a graduating student
Brian Snyder / Reuters

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.

At the outset, we chose to make our program merit-based for two reasons. First, we suspected that setting a rigorous academic standard would change attitudes inside Chicago’s high schools. If students in grades nine to 12 know that good grades will earn them a guaranteed free education, they’re further incentivized to run through the tape. (Chicago’s high-school graduation rate grew from 56.9 percent in 2011 to 78.2 percent in 2018.) Second, we theorized that making the scholarship merit-based would help the program avoid the plague of college dropouts—and that’s exactly what’s happened. Chicago Star’s retention rate is 86 percent, well above the national average of 62.7 percent.

Next, we decided to institute a series of carrots and sticks. Unlike some of its sister programs, Chicago Star covers not only tuition, but books and public transportation as well. And we decided to require recipients to complete the program in three years, allowing students to earn their associate’s degree while working full-time, but precluding them from dragging the process out indefinitely. Our shot-clock approach works: 49.7 percent of Chicago Star recipients complete their degree, more than double the national average of 23.6 percent.

The demographic impact is remarkable. More than two-thirds of Chicago Star scholars are Hispanic (compared with 20 percent in Oregon)—and 80 percent are first-generation college students (compared with 43 percent in Tennessee). But proud as we are of these successes, there’s no substitute for rigorous data analysis, and Washington should get in the game of determining which approaches work best. Policy makers in Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, and other states working to shape similar programs should know how free community college affects high-school graduation rates, for example, and whether “use it or lose it” time limits drive completion rates. As cities and states serve as laboratories of democracy, our national leaders must look to these programs as models for modernizing and expanding access to higher education.

Chicago Star is already changing young lives. You need not look beyond Elijah Ruiz, who graduated from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, attended Wilbur Wright College on the Star Scholarship, and then earned a full ride to Cornell. Or Rikyah Wright, who had earned college credits in high school through Chicago’s “dual credit, dual enrollment” program, and then took advantage of Star to enroll in fall 2017 at Harold Washington College with an entire semester’s worth of credit already under her belt. Wright went on to the University of Illinois, and is set to graduate in 2020.

I’ve spent most of the past four decades in public life. I helped President Bill Clinton turn the federal deficit into a surplus in the 1990s, and I worked with President Barack Obama to shape the Affordable Care Act. But I can say without reservation that I’m as proud of the Star Scholarship as I am of any other professional achievement. I can feel its impact in the embrace of tearful parents who understand how an associate’s degree will help their children achieve the American dream. This program matters. And all Americans—not just those fortunate enough to live in Chicago—deserve similar opportunities.

For years, reformers have focused on the impact that pre-k can have on young people as they grow into adulthood. Now, cities and states are working quietly to revolutionize public education again. More than a century ago, America sparked an explosion of social mobility by creating a robust system of public schools that run to 12th grade. By adding community colleges to the nation’s public-school systems and educational requirements, we can do the same today. Once we understand how best to do this, government can rebuild the pipeline to the American middle class and the belief in the American dream. And that, as Joe Biden might say, is a big, well, deal.