A Case for Tuition-Free Technical Schools in Georgia

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the U.S. economy experienced a rapid rebound that few had expected. [1] People clamored for goods and services that had been put on hold to slow the transmission of COVID-19; however, consumers would be kept waiting. 

The shortage of skilled workers was already on the rise; however, the pandemic exacerbated this shortage, and this gap has not shrunk. [2] This will have dramatic effects on our economy. For example, the U.S. manufacturing industry could see 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030. The cost of those missing jobs could potentially total 1 trillion dollars in 2030 alone. [3] To put this into perspective, Georgia’s gross domestic product (GDP), or the total monetary amount of goods and services produced in a given year,  was approximately 767 billion dollars in 2022. [4] A skills gap in one industry would wipe out more than a year’s worth of all goods and services in the state. Though this is a dramatic example, the consequences of failing to address this skills gap cannot be understated. 

Technical Schools train students to work in a variety of industries, not just manufacturing. Healthcare workers, locksmiths, plumbers, welders, and air traffic controllers are just a few of the jobs graduates of technical schools can pursue. Therefore, the growing concern that there are not enough workers pursuing these jobs should be cause for concern for lawmakers and employers alike. 

There are a variety of reasons that there are fewer people pursuing a technical education, ranging from the emphasis placed on a four-year degree to the idea that working in a trade is somehow “inferior,” but the biggest deterrent is the cost. Education, in any form, is expensive, and many prospective students are turned off from enrolling simply because of the price tag that comes with a technical education. [5] They need to support themselves or their families and cannot afford to be out of work or spending money they need to use to buy food, pay bills, etc. With fewer students enrolling, the effects, like those documented above, will only get worse. 

Why should lawmakers support tuition-free trade schools? First and foremost, tuition is significantly cheaper at technical schools compared to four-year universities. The state’s massive surplus, which is estimated to be around 16 billion dollars, can easily cover tuition costs. [6] Furthermore, there is a precedent for funding, as many vocational schools already offer tuition-free programs, and federal and state aid can be used toward technical colleges. It is not as if the state would suddenly be covering every single student’s tuition at every single college. Estimates taking the “most-expensive-case scenario” place the costs to the state anywhere from 20 million on the lower end to 40 million dollars on the higher end, a small chunk of the state’s surplus. [7] The benefits of investing in students, namely lower unemployment, a more skilled workforce, and a stronger economy, outweigh the associated costs.

Secondly, if Georgia wants to remain the economic hub of the South, it needs to have a competitive workforce. Other states across the Southeast have adopted free tuition to great success. Tennessee is one such example. In 2014, those who enrolled in technical schools no longer had to pay tuition fees. First-time enrollment jumped by 20 percent. [8] If Georgia wants to keep its competitive edge, it needs to be able to supply employers with a skilled workforce, or else there will no longer be an appeal for companies to expand their operations in the state.

In a time where states are increasingly competing with each other to attract businesses and spur economic growth, it should come as no surprise that supporting Georgia’s students should be a top priority for lawmakers. Technical education has long been overlooked, and the economy is dealing with the ramifications of this neglect. By providing free tuition for vocational students, Georgia can continue to maintain its status as an elite center for commerce, lower unemployment, improve the lives of Georgians, and grow its economy, all for a relatively low price.