Obama's Proposal for Free Community College: Reconnecting Education with Aspiration

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?

-- President Obama's State of the Union address, 1-20-15

President Obama's call for free community college across our country is a step toward awakening hope in our young people that hard work, education and persistence will pay off in a fair shot at the American dream. If his K-20 proposal actually becomes law, thousands of young people whose hopes for college seemed as remote as landing a corner office job will have an entry into a world of possibility. They will have access to both a college and career pathway for the array of jobs requiring Associates degrees or certification.

This could be a game-changer in poor communities where the youth are used to a concrete ceiling, not a glass one. Here, even if young people have the wherewithal to stay in school and earn a high school diploma, they rarely make the step into a college classroom. But if the price barrier is no longer a factor, these communities could find that just a handful of college students could grow into several enrolling in college, until suddenly earning a college degree becomes the norm.

But will free tuition be enough to lure students through the doors of their local community college? A degree in higher education is essential in today's environment, particularly if you come from a disadvantaged background, but educational experiences must connect with a young person's dreams or you will lose them straight away.

In America today, an astonishing 30 percent of students, including those from the middle and upper class, drop out of high school. Understand this, please: a 30-percent-plus high school dropout rate is mission failure. Any business with a 10-to-15 percent product rejection rate would be in very serious trouble. The customer is just walking away from the product.

Even more alarming, an estimated 70 percent -- yes, 70 percent -- of Black young men leave high school before earning their diploma. These young men can't envision a connection between their education and future prosperity. When they feel all is for naught, why try in the first place? They lose hope -- and the most dangerous person in the world is a person without hope. We have failed to connect education with aspiration for significant numbers of young people.

We have 30 million students in grades 5-12 in our public schools. Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, refers to them as "the bench strength for the playoff games of the rest of our lives." They literally are our future -- our employees, customers, owners, entrepreneurs and, yes, our leaders. If we don't solve this crisis of hopelessness with our youth, then in 10 years' time, we will be the nation that used to lead the world.

Young people want a legitimate shot at economic opportunity in their lives. They don't want a lecture about grades or even graduation -- just like you don't dream about a car loan, but about a car. I believe we can attract young people back into our education system and create a system that helps America win again.

Operation HOPE is working to place "HOPE Business In A Box Academies" in our public schools. In these academies, every high school student would start by taking the Gallup Strength Finders survey to not only make them aware of their individual strengths, but point them toward a path that builds strength on strength.

Our HOPE Business In A Box Academies will connect their formal education to real life confidence, skill, and aptitude building. We then need to connect all of this to real-world role models, an empowering environment, economic energy, aspiration (a code word for hope), and, finally, opportunity. Then, like plugging a socket in the wall, the American dream is back in business.

President Obama's proposal to throw open the doors of our community colleges is a bold step. Let's capitalize on his plan by connecting our young people to the bold aspirations locked away in their souls.

John Hope Bryant is author of the new book called How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Rebuilding the Path to the Middle Class (Berrett-Koehler, 2014). He serves on President Obama's Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, and is also founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit banker for the working poor, which provides financial literacy for youth, financial capability for communities, and financial dignity for all.