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Affordability of college should drive programs

If you’re looking for additional rationale for applying minimum earnings standards to community college programs, here’s one more. Sixty-two percent of this year’s graduating class will enroll at a post-secondary institution immediately after high school. Which means that 38% of their classmates will not. Affordability of college is the top reason for not enrolling.

Thanks to the Department of Education’s financial aid application system, “affordability of college” varies from household to household. Affordability also depends on other factors, like whether a dependent student’s parents have set aside any money for their kids to attend college.

According to a 2020 survey, more than half (53%) have set aside nothing for their kids to go to college. This lack of savings – while it does not preclude someone from attending college – definitely has an impact on college plans.

Why don’t the 53% set aside funds for their kids’ higher education? Many non-savers cite their own financial woes as a reason for not saving for college. Interestingly, saving for college has political overtones. Forty-five percent of Republican parents say they haven’t saved anything for college because they want their kids to pay for college themselves.

Right now, the average cost of a Michigan public university is about $25,000 per year (including room and board), so if Junior picks up a minimum wage job when he turns 16 and works 20 hours a day every day until he leaves for college, he could pay for his degree himself and graduate debt-free – assuming he finishes his degree in four years. (I’m not exaggerating here, by the way. This is how the math on that works out, assuming a $10 minimum wage, and a tax burden of $22,500 per year on wages of $72,500 per year for two years.)

Affordability of college is secondary to paying ordinary expenses

Don’t think that the 47% of parents who have set aside college funds have it made, either. Nearly 6 out of 10 parents with college savings accounts have withdrawn money from those accounts for “essential purchases.” 57% have withdrawn college funds to pay for unanticipated medical expenses. 45% have raided the college fund to pay the mortgage. One in five parents with college savings plans have used the funds for “non-essential” purchases and 11% used their children’s college savings to bankroll their trips to the casino.

So, the bottom line is that most parents don’t have the money to pay for college, and those who seemingly do also don’t have the money to pay for college. So, if community colleges want to see future enrollment, one strategy would be to ensure that their graduates earn enough to be able to set aside money for their children to go to college. Right now, that’s apparently not possible for a lot of families.

Community colleges aren’t typically selective about who they admit, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be selective about what they teach. If a degree program doesn’t lead to a high-wage, high value job, it shouldn’t be in the catalog.

Frankly, the future of the community college probably depends on it.

Photo Credit: Wil C. Fry, via Flickr