It’s Time to Make City Colleges Free to all Chicago Public Schools Graduates
Chicago has seven city colleges that are affordable to many and accessible to all. Every year, they prepare thousands of students to enter the workforce trained in 21st-century skills. But we also have too many Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students who don’t continue their education because they can’t afford it, so they leave high school unprepared for work, for college and for life.
To keep Chicago strong and growing, we need to rethink our public education system and get more young people the skills they need to succeed at a price they can afford. That’s why I’m proposing to make our City Colleges free to every CPS student through a merger of both institutions.
By merging CPS and City Colleges, we can create a seamless — and free — education that carries students from Pre-K all the way through an associate’s degree without the burden of tuition.
Nearly two-thirds of new jobs today require some post-secondary education. Yet just 18 percent of CPS students earn a four-year college degree, and there is no reliable data on the number earning a two-year degree. Two-thirds of today’s jobs require more than a high school degree, and our kids can’t get those jobs without a chance at a higher education. Some job sectors are desperate for people with the right skill set, such as advanced manufacturing, healthcare and technology. If a merged system can better prepare kids for these jobs, then we’ll set them on a path to a brighter future with job security and higher pay.
To make that possible, we need to ensure that students can graduate without being buried in debt and unable to find a job to pay it off. That’s what this proposal will achieve. It will enable us to set a bold challenge to boost the percentage of graduates with two- or four-year degrees to at least 50% within the next decade.
Today, CPS and City Colleges are two separate governmental organizations. They have separate taxing powers and separate funding streams. But they have a shared mission — and even an overlapping one — to produce young people who are prepared for college, work and life. My proposal would make it official: Join them together so they can coordinate their efforts and be more effective.
We have hundreds of vocational education programs in CPS. We have seven city colleges and five satellite campuses focused on different industry sectors. It’s time to bring them together under one roof. The savings in administrative costs alone can fund free tuition for thousands of additional CPS graduates and even keep down costs for adult learners. And for those who want to pursue a four-year degree, free community college sets them on that path.
Chicago’s first community college, Crane Junior College, was created by the Chicago Board of Education in 1911. By 1929, it was the largest community college in the country, with more than 4,000 students. So in some ways, a merger brings us full circle with our history of valuing post-secondary education and being a national leader in the way it’s provided.
I know this idea raises questions around governance, funding and tuition, and we need to bring together experts and stakeholders to map out a plan. But we can’t fear change simply because it takes us into unknown territory. In a city facing deep challenges — from crime and taxes to education — we cannot accept the status quo. If we want a different outcome, we have to stop doing things the way we have always done them.
To keep Chicago strong and growing, let’s raise the bar and give every young person a fair shot at a better future. A guaranteed Pre-K-14 education is a big — and innovative — step in the right direction.