Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, speaks for many devising these initiatives when he insists: “As a state, we generally acknowledge and understand that a high-school education is not enough, and [tuition-free community college] represents an attempt to extend that [public-education] entitlement to 14 years.”
Two key factors explain why 14 is becoming the new 12 in education. First, amid anxiety about the economic strains on blue-collar families, the push for expanded post-secondary access reflects a growing recognition of the critical opportunities community colleges give working-class kids.
More children of parents without a four-year college degree attend community college than any other form of post-secondary education, according to calculations by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. That’s true for white, African American, and Hispanic students alike. (These figures apply both to students who are financially dependent on their parents and those who are financially independent.) Fully 70 percent of all community-college students are the children of parents without four-year degrees.*
The bridge that community colleges provide for working-class kids was evident when I recently met with a group of Chicago Star Scholarship winners. Among them, only one had a parent who had obtained even a two-year degree. Without the scholarship, which covers tuition, books, and fees in the city’s community-college system, most of those around the table said they would have struggled to pay for school—if they could afford it at all. “I know a lot of kids in my classes who work two jobs,” said scholarship winner Maria Rivera, a first-generation student. “When you have the Star Scholarship … you can put more effort into your work.”
Rivera’s experience captures two other Chicago innovations that are expanding post-secondary access. She finished the two-year Harold Washington College here in just three semesters because she completed so many college-level courses in her public high school. (Half of Chicago high-school graduates now leave with some college credit.) And she’s now planning on seeking a four-year degree, partly because most local colleges provide large tuition discounts to transferring Star Scholarship students.
Simultaneously, the drive for 14 years of education responds to the growing demand from employers for more skilled workers. In Tennessee, Haslam wants 55 percent of the state’s adults (up from about 40 percent now) to obtain some post-secondary credential by 2025. “We’re trying to make a quantum leap in terms of our educated and trained populace,” said David Wright, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s chief policy officer. “It’s an economic-competitiveness issue.”
This flurry of local activity has, inevitably, hit some bumps. Because the Oregon and Tennessee programs provide “last dollar” financing after students obtain all available federal aid, they have provoked objections by channeling many of the state dollars to relatively better-off students who don’t receive as much federal help. New York’s broader program has faced a similar concern that free tuition will lure more upper-middle-class students from private colleges into the public system, displacing minority and lower-income kids who often post lower test scores and grades.