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Associate degree needs a new value proposition

Yesterday, I wrote about adding more value to the associate degree. Today, I read an article in the Detroit Free Press about why Gen Z isn’t going to college. The article is behind a paywall, but the gist is that cost-to-value ratio is a little too high. You can change the cost-to-value ratio by lowering the cost of a degree, but community colleges are already low-cost. The other way to change the ratio is to increase the value.

Another point the article makes is that Generation Z (1997-2012) is entrepreneurial. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since many Zoomers are the kids of an earlier generation of entrepreneurs, Generation X. A common question from Zoomers (and it deserves an answer) is, “Why should I go to work to make someone else rich, while I struggle to pay my bills?”

I have heard that from both of my children – both Zoomers.

From my own small sample size, I can say that neither of them aims to become a millionaire – although if the opportunity presented itself, I’m sure they’d consider it. But they do want meaningful work. And “meaning” doesn’t come from making someone else rich from their labor.

Cost and value of an associate degree are two different things

So, two things come to mind. First, depending upon how you define it, Gen-Z is possibly the largest generation in history. If Gen Z isn’t the largest generation, the generation that immediately precedes it – the Millennials – is. You have two generations of people who are each larger than the Baby Boomers. If you’re having enrollment problems while working with two of the largest-ever generations, you’re doing something wrong.

Second, the members of these generations are neither lazy nor dumb. But they do expect value, so you’d better be prepared to deliver it. Neither of these generations will work for pennies on the dollar. (The old “unpaid internship?” Forget it.) Barack Obama had occupied the White House for just six months the last time the federal minimum wage was raised. That’s not lost on people who are trying to climb out of poverty.

And if you think an insultingly low minimum wage is the best way to motivate someone to better themselves through education, make sure the education you’ve prescribed delivers. Most associate degrees don’t.

If the associate degree (and community colleges for that matter) are going to survive, community college administrators need to add value to degrees they award. Value is measured on output. For years, community college administrators have relied heavily on the input of employers to shape their degree programs. What works best for employers doesn’t always work well for employees.

If you’re trying to put more students in your classrooms, try giving them a reason to be there.

Photo Credit: Kristoffer Trolle, via Flickr