President Biden has laid out his vision for the future of public education, which includes a nationwide community college tuition waiver for all Americans who want to take advantage.
That waiver would be especially impactful in states with the lowest levels of higher education attainment, including several in the Mountain West. In Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and New Mexico, fewer than 30% of adults over 25 have a bachelor's degree.
Central Wyoming College's president, Brad Tyndall, said Wyoming's low percentage is partly due to its history of high-paying jobs in the energy sector.
"In Wyoming we have the highest number of people who have made it to the middle class and above without a college education. Why? Oil and gas. You don't need a degree to work many jobs in those industries," Tyndall said. "And now, the economy is shifting and we're in trouble. We need some major GI Bill kind of initiative to get adult learners through."
Northern New Mexico College President Richard Bailey also sees promise in the proposal. In a recent survey, he said, 99% of the school's two- and four-year students, who skew low-income and hispanic, reported seeking a degree to improve their standing in the job market and secure higher wages.
"In the 21st century, a high school education rarely leads to a living wage. There are exceptions. But for the most part, if you want to make a living wage, you either have to get multiple jobs or you have to have some type of higher education," Bailey said.
He said extending free, public education for two years beyond high school would better reflect the demands of the modern job market.
Under Biden's proposal, the tuition waiver wouldn't interfere with or supersede the federal Pell Grant for students who are eligible. That would allow those students to put their Pell aid toward living expenses and lessen the opportunity cost of not having a job, or of working fewer hours while in school.
The proposal would extend the same tuition benefit to minority-serving institutions, including our region's tribal colleges. Charles Roessel, president of Diné College, said lowering the barriers to higher education for Native people living on reservations would have ripple effects beyond individual students.
"Most graduates of tribal colleges stay in their communities. So, the impact for others of having a role model with a degree in their community, down the street, in their neighbors' house, is enormous," Roessel said.
Government-paid tuition would also help struggling community and tribal colleges stay afloat financially after an especially difficult year. Haven Gorneau is president of Fort Peck Community College, which she called a "lifeline" for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux community and others in northeastern Montana.
"The students would be able to pay their bills, because a lot of them can't pay their tuition. And we basically have to eat that cost," Gorneau said.
Biden's proposal would be paid for by tax hikes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans who make more than $400,000 a year, making it a tough sell in Congress. Many Republican lawmakers representing the Mountain West have already voiced opposition, arguing that the country can't afford it. Those include Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis , Utah Sen. Mike Lee , and Montana Sen. Steve Daines .
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.