“The Biden Plan for Education beyond High School,” a platform document circulated by Joe Biden’s team during the 2020 presidential campaign, refers to community colleges as “America’s best kept secret.” While that may come as a surprise to the 8.2 million students enrolled in these institutions (who represent 37 percent of the country’s year-round undergraduates, according to the U.S. Department of Education), it is a point worthy of consideration. Higher education in the U.S. has long meant four-year colleges—and it has become a societal dividing line. In the last two presidential elections, Donald Trump twice won more than 60 percent of non-college-educated white voters.

With President-elect Biden about to take office, the nation’s 942 public two-year colleges are under a spotlight as part of the new administration’s plans for addressing income inequalities that have fostered political divisions. (Incoming first lady Jill Biden has spent years as a community college teacher.) Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who has studied and written about the U.S.’s community colleges, spoke with Scientific American about the prospects for a new era in the nation’s higher education.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Why do you think the Biden-Harris administration has made community college central to its education plans?
If you look at the Biden platform for changing America, healing America, community colleges line up for a whole variety of reasons. They really are our quintessential institutions for social mobility. They take students from all backgrounds. If you run as Joe Biden did, on a platform of unifying the country, community colleges are an appropriate focus. They appeal to people of all political stripes, I think, because they do play this social mobility role, whereas the elite four-year colleges are seen as kind of gated communities. Community colleges are found in every congressional district, so they’re unifying. And Jill Biden has taught in community colleges for years, often teaching remedial classes, so she knows firsthand what community colleges can do.

You’ve written that community college should be free for all, including those who can afford to pay for it. Why is that important?
As community colleges have increasingly become institutions for less advantaged students, they have become economically segregated and separate from institutions that serve more affluent students. We know that economic segregation in K–12 education is disastrous, and it is also troubling in higher education. You want institutions to educate students from all backgrounds together, in part, because when you have separate institutions for the poor, they tend to be underfunded. And those students are cut off from important networks that are critical to getting jobs. It’s important who your classmates are. More than half of all jobs are filled through some sort of a connection. If community colleges are free to everyone, that can provide an incentive for upper-middle-class students to attend, which will enrich the experience for everyone, including low-income and working-class students.

But making such an education free is only part of the solution, correct?
Free community college is an important shift because it sends a very bright signal to people that this is accessible to everyone. But the big problem with community college today is not that students don’t start; it’s that they start and then don’t complete. That’s why, in addition to making community college free, it’s enormously important to make sure that community colleges have the resources necessary to ensure students are successful. Right now 62 percent of students who enter community college fail to complete a degree or certificate within six years. So the majority don’t succeed. Even more troubling, 81 percent of students entering community colleges say they would like to eventually get a four-year degree. But after six years, only 15 percent do that.

And if you don’t raise that number, making community college free won’t matter as much?
That’s right—which is why Joe Biden also plans to invest $8 billion in community college facilities and technologies. And he’s also got a $50-billion workforce-training program. If he does those two things—makes [a community college education] free and invests—I think the larger societal and political impacts could be enormous.

When you say political impact, what do you mean?
Well, we’ve had a stunning moment in American politics, a moment of intense social turmoil where we elected, in my view, a demagogue. And that was made possible, in part, because social mobility and the American dream have become illusory for so many people. It used to be that if you were born in 1940, you had a 90 percent chance of making more than your parents did. If you were born in 1984—people who are in their mid-30s now—you only have a 50 percent chance of doing better than your parents. So when you don’t have social mobility, you get a highly frustrated population that will seek dramatic change to shake things up—even if it is, in my view, ill-advised change.

So if Biden can reignite social mobility in America, in part, by strengthening the quintessential institution for social mobility, community college, he could restore the American dream for people and thereby bring about a more rational kind of politics in which people aren’t so desperate as to be drawn to politicians spouting antidemocratic rhetoric.

Has higher education itself become politicized?
There used to be broad bipartisan support for higher education. People believed in it as an engine for social mobility, a better life and a general good. And we’ve seen, in recent years, some alarming survey research that suggests that, just as wearing a mask has become politicized, so has the view of American higher education. There’s increased skepticism, on the right, of higher education. But interestingly, that does not extend to community college. And this fits precisely into Biden’s campaign, because you’ll recall that on the campaign trail, he would pointedly note that he would become the first non-Ivy League president in quite some time, going back to Ronald Reagan.

That was part of Biden’s populist appeal—you know, “I’m one of you. I went to public college. I have a wife who teaches at a community college.” It just makes sense. The stars are aligned for community colleges. They fit into what voters liked about Biden—that he wasn’t an elitist, was someone who didn’t look down on other people. Also, with a closely divided House and Senate, Biden is going to be looking for places where he can get bipartisan support. And community colleges line up there as well.

Last month the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece essentially mocking Jill Biden, who has an Ed.D., for her use of the title “Dr.” And in the same tone, a Yale University graduate named Kyle Smith wrote in the National Review that “she has spent a lot of time teaching remedial English to slow learners in community colleges.” What did you make of all that?
I would say a couple of things. First, there’s been a lot of appropriate focus on the way in which the Wall Street Journal was sexist in going after Jill Biden’s use of the word “doctor.” But just as important is the classist and snobbish aspect of the critique. Because anyone who has taught knows that it’s actually more challenging to teach students who haven’t had opportunities and may bring weaker academic credentials to the classroom. I’m thinking of one law professor I had who said he taught undergraduates periodically because it was so much harder than teaching law students. Kyle Smith got it exactly wrong when he denigrated Jill Biden for teaching students who were in remedial classes. That’s the really challenging work that ought to inspire more respect, not less.