How one school in Michael Jackson's hometown proves 'free' college is possible

'Free' college can be done without any change in politics

Free college is a political football in D.C. these days. And just like almost everything else, all one has to do is look outside the beltway to see a solution already exists.  And it doesn’t require more taxes or spending.

While many argue the nation can’t afford it and others argue we can’t afford not to, one school in Gary, Indiana is proving it is already possible without political change.

Since 2013, more than 40 students from 21st Century Charter School graduated from high school with their college associate degree in hand. One earned a full bachelor’s degree before graduating from high school. Two more will accomplish this goal in 2024. We are just getting started.   

How is this possible? 


Like every school in the country, budgets are tight. At 21st Century Charter School, budgets are even tighter. We get 30 percent less funding than traditional schools receive. But our mission remains the same—graduate students on time, ready and able to complete college. To accomplish the goal, we focus our budget accordingly. 

To be sure, it is a monumental goal. In Gary, only 15 percent of households have a college degree. Indeed, the most recent high school graduation rate for Gary’s lone traditional high school was 62 percent. Nonetheless, 21st Century, with a student population that is 100 percent poverty and minority, has recorded 90 percent or better graduation rates in each of the last 10 years and this year, it is 96 percent.

High school graduation is important. But going to college is more important.  And going there prepared to complete college is even more important. That’s why each of our graduates attend real college courses on college campuses every year starting as early as 9th grade.  This year, the 86 students who made up the Class of 2022, earned an average of 22 college credits prior to receiving their high school diploma; nine earned full associate degrees. 

The open-enrollment school, which is striving for 100 percent of its high school seniors to earn a college associate degree before they graduate from high school, accomplishes its goal by focusing state education funds on the specific needs of each student and not replicating expenses on classes that already exist at the college level. Each student takes the college entrance test for the local community college upon entering the school. If students pass, we enroll the student in the appropriate course at the college level. If the student fails, we remediate and the student takes the test again later in the year with the plan to start taking college level classes the following semester. 

We prove to our students we believe they are college material.  This is extremely important because we compete daily with parents who don’t believe their children are capable or don’t understand how a college degree can change the trajectory of their child’s lifetime income. 

In each of the past 10 years, the cost of college tuition paid for by 21st Century Charter School has gone up.  We started paying $30,000 in 2013 for about 60 students to earn 240 college credits. Last year, the school spent more than $400,000 on college costs for more than 200 students to earn more than 2500 college credits while in high school.  The costs have gone up but so has our enrollment. 

We used to have 350 students. Today, we have 1,400 students. Kids love the challenge and our belief in them. And, believe it or not, the program is saving us money.  

Instead of the school investing in French, Latin, German, shop class, and many other classes traditionally found in destination high schools, the school provides the students the funds to take specific college level classes they want and that are fully transferable to any four-year university in Indiana and add up to an associate and bachelor’s degree. This saves the school thousands of dollars that would be needed to fund teachers to offer these courses. Thousands more if we needed to provide the facility.   

For instance, one teacher’s salary and benefits can easily be more than $70,000, and that is for one subject. The $400,000 that 21st Century invested in its students paid for students to take more than 40 different subjects, too. If we had to hire 40 different teachers, we would have easily spent more than $2.8 million and that doesn’t include the facility costs. 


Focusing the dollars on the true goal of getting students into college is helping Gary students graduate from high school on time and complete college virtually debt free. Nyesha Canady, a 2014 graduate of 21st Century Charter School, and one of three students to earn her associate degree while in high school that year, earned her bachelor’s degree after only two years out of high school attending Ball State University.  She’s been teaching math at our school ever since. Raven Osborne, the young lady who earned a full bachelor’s degree at no cost to her while in our high school in 2017, has been teaching in our school ever since, too.   


Free college is not a fantasy idea. It can be done today without any change in politics. It requires school administrators to think differently. The goal is not to create a destination campus that actually replicates costs at a local community college or university, but rather the goal is to spend state education dollars as efficiently as possible and as centered on high school graduation and college completion as possible. This will lead to improved high school graduation rates, an improvement in the number of college courses earned by students and ultimately an improvement in college completion rates. We are a launching pad, not a destination.