If you had to pick a year and a place to continue your post-secondary education, the year 2021 and the county of Jackson in North Carolina is about as good as it gets.

Our institutes of higher learning, Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College, have turned out local leaders and community servants of all stripes for generations and are only getting better at their missions, so we’ll dispense with the usual sales pitch we could offer regarding them (and which they deserve, but space is limited and that’s not the point today).

No, the question today is how would you make solid, established programs that can offer a wide variety of better futures for the people of Jackson County and surrounding environs better?

Well, how about making them free?

That’s the case at Southwestern, which this week announced the “SCC Promise” initiative that does not charge tuition or fees to students for the 2021-22 academic year.

The Promise is open to new students and those already enrolled provided they meet a very short and reasonable list of criteria: Complete the 2021-22 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); enroll in a minimum of six credit hours; and complete the SCC Promise Application.

The initiative provides what’s termed a “last option” financial assistance program that provides tuition after all other state and federal funds have been applied.

Don Tomas, SCC president, said “we’ve never been able to offer an opportunity like this for our students. It sounds too good to be true, but I can assure you this is very real. There’s never been a better time to enroll at SCC than right now.”

Meanwhile, WCU is awarding nearly $3.8 million in federal Higher Education relief funds to students this summer. The move includes tuition waivers for all eligible students.

The university is also providing $500 emergency grants to enrolled students who qualify for assistance in payment of fall 2021 semester billing charges.

The funds are part of the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in the spring.

“With these funding opportunities,” said Kelli Brown, WCU chancellor, “we’re able to continue our commitment to this region while providing accessible and affordable higher education to all students.”

The late American writer William Arthur Ward once opined “opportunities are like sunrises. If you wait too long, you miss them.”

At this time and in this place, educational opportunities are ripe for the next generation.

These particular opportunities won’t last forever.

To paraphrase Ward, local students should grab them before they sunset.