The Campaign for Free College Tuition’s advocacy for making college tuition free is based on a belief that young people need to continue their education after high school to increase their economic success as adults.
Now, in a remarkable new book, The Years that Matter Most, author Paul Tough describes the range of barriers many high school students must overcome to get into college and how difficult it is for far too many students to complete their higher education studies if they do enroll.
To understand the reforms needed in our higher education system that Tough advocates, requires an understanding of the process by which human beings attain psychological maturity. It is a period of time in each individual’s life during which a person’s view of how the world works is shaped and lifelong attitudes and beliefs become part of who they are. This process of evaluating what your parents taught you, what your friends believe and what other influential adults, such as clergy or teachers, have encouraged you to believe, takes place from roughly the age of 15 to 25, when the brain is full developed.
Unfortunately, it is in this time period when young people are the most vulnerable, that our current educational system places the most pressure on students to not just succeed academically but to do so in an environment, college, that yanks many of their support systems, such as family and friends, out from under them. America must adopt a new, integrated system of supportive educational institutions that eliminates this barrier to success if we are ever going to eliminate the disparities in graduation rates that continue to persist in the current system.
What would such a system look like? Well to begin with it must make the transition from high school to college as smooth as possible. Instead of having one educational environment, high school, that students must learn to navigate at the start of their maturation process and a completely different one, college, that they must learn how to successfully maneuver through mid-way through the process, the country needs to create a new set of educational institutions where high school feels more like college and college more closely resembles high school.
Although that may sound like an undertaking greater than the country is capable of accomplishing, there are already innovations taking place at the state level that suggest the transformation may be easier than it might appear to be at first.
In 2015, Tennessee became the first state to make their community and technical colleges just as free as high school. In the first year of their “Promise” program, community college enrollment was up almost 25%, with about 4,000 additional students entering a higher education institution, once this transitional barrier was eliminated. Tennessee’s college rate has remained over 62.5% since the enactment of the Tennessee Promise – which ranged between 55.7% and 58.4% in the five-years before the Tennessee Promise. (CFCT Briefing Book, p. 40)
When Rhode Island made their community college tuition free the number of full-time students enrolling upon graduation from high school more than doubled. After two years the number of students of color going to their community college has nearly tripled. (CFCT Briefing Book, p. 41)
A survey of students applying for the same tuition free benefit in Nevada found that eight percent of them had not planned on going to college--until they learned they could go for the same price as attending high school—zero. In the same survey 69% of Hispanic students and 68% of students who were the first in their family to attend college said that the ability to attend college tuition free influenced their decision to attend. (CFCT Briefing Book, p. 42)
A number of states have also introduced dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to take courses that simultaneously offer college and high school credit upon completion. This provides students an opportunity to first experience the academic challenges of college in the more familiar social environment of high school. An in depth study by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) found that 88 percent of community college dual enrollment students continued in college after high school. They attained a credential from a community college at rates (46%) that were greater five years after high school than the six year graduation rate (39%) for those who did not have the experience of college classes in high school. These results demonstrate that making high school more like college has the potential to improve the productivity of our higher education system and make it less costly for both schools and students.
Along with these incremental steps, the country will need some ‘green field’ experiments, unconstrained by the reality of what exists today, to demonstrate the potential of a new structure for America’s higher education system. University leaders are best positioned to lead these experiments. They can use the resources at their disposal to create grade 10-16 schools that students can join after middle or junior high school. There students could progress academically and mature psychologically in a supportive environment of teachers, administrators, friends and hopefully family, that is tailored to their individual needs—including their financial resources.
All of this may be a “crazy idea,” but that’s what people said when we called for making college tuition free just six years ago. Measured against the progress we have made since, and the urgency of the need to close the educational achievement gaps in our country, we hope it won’t be long before the first experiments appear on college campuses across the country.
Morley Winograd is the President and CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.