Now is the time when students either celebrate their graduation or sign up for the upcoming college year. Both events represent major milestones in their lives and careers.

Yet the number of students to attend college, particularly in rural America, has been in decline for more than a decade. New enrollment numbers fell sharply this past year, with far too many people being unable to cover the cost of college tuition.

First-time fall enrollment in 2020 fell 21%, and the number of Black, Hispanic and Native American first-year students dropped almost 30% from the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That’s a waste of talent and a national tragedy. Corporate America should help: Companies can assist by removing the financial hurdle of college tuition by viewing investment in education as core to their own future.

Direct corporate investment in people to further their education prepares the skilled workforce of the future and supports long-term community sustainability. Nowhere is that need more acute than in rural America, where financial and educational resources are stretched thin.

That’s why, in March, we announced that JBS USA is providing free community college tuition to all our team members and their children. Our Better Futures program stands to become the largest privately funded free two-year college tuition initiative across the nation’s heartland and in rural America.

Today, we’re able to announce partnerships with 35 colleges in 17 states including Angelina College in Lufkin, plus a national online partner. That number of partnerships will continue to grow.

Any of our 66,000-plus team members nationwide with us for at least six months, plus up to two dependent children if both parents work for the company, are eligible. We pay all tuition fees upfront, ensuring they need not worry about loans.

Financing is the greatest barrier not only to college enrollment but also to completion and graduation. A Federal Trade Commission study published September 2020 found that eliminating tuition led to a 26% increase in enrollment, with 86% of the increase at community colleges among students who otherwise would not have pursued higher education. Similarly, there’s a 22% increase in degree completions.

Our goal is to unlock rural America’s potential, and we’re OK if students pursue other opportunities for themselves after graduation. That builds community and strengthens hometowns.

Better Futures benefits us, too. As one of the nation’s leading food companies, with beef, pork, poultry, prepared foods and plant-based production facilities across America, we play a pivotal role in rural job creation, long-term capital investment, and through the billions of dollars we pay to farmers and ranchers that flow through to others, supporting the local economy.

Many of our team members are from first-generation American families. The dependable jobs we offer provide a path to the middle class, and a tuition-free college education offers them and their children another step up, promoting greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in society.

The rate at which college enrollments has been dropping has led educators, and business leaders, to fear that a lost generation of young people, unable to afford tuition now, will move on and lose the opportunity to further their education for good.

We can’t afford to let that happen in our communities, to our country or to our future economy. Removing the financial barriers to education should be a corporate priority, and we are investing now.

Andre Nogueira is the chief executive  officer of JBS USA, which owns Pilgrim’s.