Making the case for free community college nationwide

Seventeen states offer some sort of tuition-free two-year college program. Research proves the educational and economic benefit to young people who likely would have skipped college otherwise.

SHARE Making the case for free community college nationwide
The sign outside Truman College in Uptown, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.

The sign outside Truman College in Uptown, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. It’s time for a national plan for free community college, the Editorial Board writes.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The concept of free community college did not originate, as one might suppose, in New York, California or some other deep blue, liberal state.

In fact, solid-red Tennessee was the first state to launch a free college program, seven years ago. Wealthy, Republican businessman-turned-governor Bill Haslam touted his Tennessee Promise plan as a potential boon for his state’s economy, not a “giveaway” that would be anathema to conservatives.

A better-educated workforce, Haslam argued, would attract much-needed, new businesses and jobs to a state in which just 32% of residents held any type of post-secondary credential.

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Haslam’s program took off like wildfire. Thousands more young people than expected enrolled in community colleges, especially graduates of career and technical programs who traditionally had not sought post-secondary education. And community college graduation rates rose from a cellar-dwelling 13.8% to an abysmal-but-better 28%, likely due to the fact that students were required to work with mentors to stay on track academically.

By 2019, the share of Tennessee residents with a post-secondary degree or credential had risen to 39%.

Sixteen states, including three neighbors of Illinois — Indiana, Missouri and Kentucky — have since followed Tennessee’s lead and launched similar programs to make community college free. So too have some individual community colleges, with City Colleges of Chicago leading the way for large, urban systems through former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Star Scholarship program.

The Obama administration made a national push, but legislation never made it through Congress.

It’s time to revive the idea, as President Joe Biden first proposed as a candidate.

Young person’s best chance

Here’s the bottom line: A high school diploma is typically an absolute dead-end in today’s economy, given that 65% of jobs require some sort of post-secondary credential.

The United States must make it possible for every young person, particularly those of limited means or with career goals that don’t require a four-year college degree, to get a high quality post-secondary education. It represents their best chance to climb the economic ladder.

“Regardless of what your politics are, you have to admit that income inequality is an issue. The question is, what do we do about it?” said Haslam — that dyed-in-the-wool Southern Republican — in 2020. “If a good education is a requirement to enter the workforce, we have to give more people the opportunity to get that.”

High academic standards

Critics raise an entirely legitimate concern that a national program of free community college could burden schools with a deluge of new students who aren’t prepared or interested in doing college-level work.

We get that. Community colleges already enroll a disproportionate number of students who need remedial work and are not likely to graduate. As an editorial board, we have talked with community college administrators in Chicago who say this can be a real problem.

The last thing anybody wants to see is community colleges devolving into do-overs for high school. And young people reap no benefit from going just to be going because it’s free.

The answer: Require students to meet certain academic standards in exchange for the free ride. And team students up with mentors, as Tennessee did, to keep them on track to graduate.

Many states that offer free community college impose such standards, requiring students to maintain a minimum grade-point average and number of credit hours. The Obama administration’s proposal, which is the foundation for Biden’s plan, sets standards as well.

Here in Chicago, City Colleges requires participants in its free tuition program to earn at least a “B” average.

A powerful impact

The potential impact of free community college is substantial.

One 2018 study, by a researcher from Princeton University, found that two-thirds of new students who enrolled in free community college programs were low-income young people who probably would not have enrolled in college at all otherwise.

Those students “reap significant gains in educational attainment and earnings,” the study concluded. “Two-year access significantly boosts the upward mobility of disadvantaged students.”

Hammering out details

President Biden is pushing an ambitious pandemic-recovery economic agenda, with a particular focus on giving our nation’s poor a fairer shake. It stands to reason that making higher education more affordable at all levels should be a top priority.

With respect to community colleges, Biden has called for the creation of a 3-to-1 federal-to-state funding match to cover the full costs. That federal commitment is critical, experts in the field say, because the individual states have been hammered by the pandemic.

“Community colleges serve communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” Chicago City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado told us. “There’s a need for a [federal] program to incentivize large numbers of community colleges to do what we’re doing.”

But even in the best of times, given the nature of today’s economy, every capable young person — rich or poor — should be able to afford college.

It can be the difference between going nowhere and going somewhere.

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