College for All: Democratic Safeguard, Economic Necessity

There was a time when you couldn't go to high school for free in the U.S. If you wanted education beyond the eighth grade, you'd have to find a school and pay for it. After all, what was the point of free, universal high school if most kids ended up on the farm or in the factory?

Some states were quicker to implement change than others. Massachusetts, which had mandated compulsory education in 1647, enacted the nation's first universal, free high school program in 1852.

But it took some 70 years for all of the states to do the same. By the eve of World War II and the era of American global dominance, the United States led the world in high school graduation rates. Our students were prepared. They learned the necessary skills in high school. Today, the skills that students learn in high school do not get them very far. Soon, two-thirds of all jobs will require a college degree. The service economy has become the knowledge economy. As the demands on new employees grow, so too does the need for higher education.

What does all this history and industrial change have to do with community college? Actually, an awful lot. Just like 40 is the new 30 and is the new big box store, community college is the new high school. Half a century ago, the skills we learned in high school were sufficient to equip most of us with the know-how to occupy most skilled and semi-skilled jobs in the 20th century economy.

No more. In this increasingly technical and information-rich era, a modicum of higher education is the minimum most of us need to find a decent, middle-class occupation.

About half of all college students today attend community college. The vast majority of minorities in higher education -- 50 percent of Hispanic students and 31 percent of African American students -- choose community college. It's their stepping-stone to stability and achievement.

That's why President Obama's proposal to make the first two years community college free for full-time students should be seen as a historic moment -- both from the viewpoint of educational progress and of civil rights. It is a critical first step towards a more just country. It is the necessary baseline to maintain a vibrant democracy. We need more people with higher education in the workforce; the nature of the work quite simply demands it. And we need to ensure that the promise of equality and economic participation for all isn't an empty, theoretical construct -- as it surely will be if we can't provide all Americans with a pathway to stable jobs.

Will the President's proposal pass during his term of office? Honestly, I wouldn't bet on it. But then again, if you told me this program draws from one that the Republican Governor of Tennessee put in place, I would probably look at you quizzically. Regardless, the very fact that the President has proposed it has catalyzed a movement to recognize the importance of community college to our younger generation's general welfare, and particularly to the economic welfare of ethnic minorities.

Just as happened with universal high school and with civil rights, some states will lead the charge. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York spoke recently about forgiving financial aid debt under certain circumstances. The drive for free, universal higher education in the U.S., at the least at the community college level, has begun. And just as it is necessary to pursue, it will be hard to stop.

Even so, let's remember that tuition-free community college won't remove all barriers to higher education. It costs money to travel to school, to put kids in day care (a disproportionate number of community college students are parents of young children), and to put food on the table. Much of the tuition cost of community college can already be covered for low-income students by a Pell Grant, but tuition is only a fraction of the problem. We mustn't forget that more than half of community college students attend part-time because they are the breadwinners, the ones that their families rely on. As this movement continues, I believe, it will only be a matter of time before part-time students are covered as well.

So let's recognize and applaud the ground-breaking proposal to make community college free to anyone wishing to attend. But let's remember that tuition-free college is only one step on the long road to economic prosperity and equality in 21st century America.