When the conversation of making post-secondary education in the United States tuition free comes up, it generally revolves around young students moving directly from high school to college before entering the workplace.
To be clear, the exorbitant cost of college in this country prevents many bright young minds from reaching their full potential, and this barrier ought to be eradicated; furthermore, as candidate Pete Buttigieg pointed out in the first Democratic debate earlier this year, we need to make life affordable for people who choose not to go to college.
However, an often overlooked facet of the push for free postsecondary education is the potential for adults to go back to school.
Take the energy sector, for example. Scientific consensus points in part to the use of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources as major sources of air pollution and global climate change.
There are pushes all around the world to reduce emissions and reach a state of carbon neutrality to prevent environmental catastrophe. This means that old energy businesses like oil and coal will be phased out in favor of renewable resources like solar and wind, and other alternative sources like nuclear. Working in these fields necessitates specialized education almost exclusively limited to universities
Unfortunately, this presents a problem for workers suddenly without jobs due to their industry becoming obsolete. Many areas in Appalachia have cultural roots in coal mining, and this will be a genuine disruption to people’s way of life.
Considering the rampant poverty already present in the region, this is a major upcoming problem.
Imagine what tuition-free college could do for workers displaced by industry shifts. Coal miners and their families could potentially go to school and learn new skills without having to take on debt just to fund that education. They could potentially create new businesses and bring economic growth to their region, or they could take their knowledge elsewhere to begin a new job.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to coal miners. With tuition-free college, adults could train for new jobs while continuing to work their old ones, or even pick up part-time work without having to put it all towards school. This could easily expand the pool of nurses and other medical workers who were able to transfer to that field later in life, positions consistently needed in hospitals and smaller practices around the country.
It could also allow for workers to convert their expertise in their fields into education and begin training the next generation for their careers. This isn’t just a pipe dream, by the way. The state of Tennessee already has Tennessee Promise, a scholarship that guarantees two years of tuition-free community college for in-state students just out of high school, and Tennessee Reconnect, a program designed to help adults returning or beginning college.
Granted, these aren’t the same as what’s being argued for here, but they represent important facets of such an idea. New Mexico’s governor recently introduced legislation to make all college tuition-free for in-state students, regardless of age. It’s happening slowly, but state governments are waking up to the potential economic benefits of tuition-free college.
This is not to say that tuition-free education doesn’t have criticisms or potential drawbacks. Economists point out that tuition isn’t the only major college expense, and it may not be enough to help low-income students achieve higher education. In the same vein, upper class students may disproportionately benefit from tuition-free college because they can afford books, housing and organiation dues.
These are entirely true, and they are obstacles that need to be surmounted, but eliminating tuition from the equation is the first step towards affordability that so many students need to live productive lives after school.
In our modern world, higher education is becoming more and more necessary for finding work, and many people who could contribute economically and socially but cannot afford to keep going to school need this financial barrier gone, especially adult students who want to potentially change their lives. Education is a human right, and it ought to be shared with everyone.