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Associate Degree Wages Explain Enrollment Drop

According to ZipRecruiter’s Michigan salary data for November 2021, the average wage of a person with an associate degree is $17.57 per hour. Michigan’s average annual salary for two-year degree holders is nearly 21% lower than the national average. A person who earns an associate degree can expect to earn just $1.50 more per hour than a person with a high school diploma.

That translates to a lifetime earnings boost of $125,000, assuming a 40-year career. (The president of Washtenaw Community College makes nearly three times that in a single year, including salary and “incentives.”) Using ZipRecruiter’s data again, 9 out of 10 community college graduates will make no more than $56,881 and no community college graduates here will exceed $66,000 in annual salary.

^^^^^^^^ THIS. ^^^^^^^^

This is exactly why people do not enroll in community college programs. The return on investment in a community college degree is so poor that earning one is no longer worth the $12 more per day it will produce. That puts the break-even point on an associate degree from WCC at about 2.5 years.

Earlier this summer, the WCC Administration created a new “wage floor” of $15/hour. This isn’t a living wage in Washtenaw County. The current living wage here, when accounting for inflation is about $17, which the average associate degree wage barely surpasses. (WCC’s Executive Management budget for 2021-22 would pay the salaries of more than 66 individuals employed full-time at a rate of $15 per hour.)

Boost the value of an associate degree to boost associate degree wages

But that wage floor did not stop them from creating a new job training program for $12/hour jobs at local skilled care facilities. Yes, WCC doesn’t even pay anyone $12/hour anymore, yet they’re willing to create a “training program” to manufacture poverty-wage jobs.

Community college degrees will remain irrelevant until community colleges make them relevant again. But how?

First, they can collect accurate industry wage data and wage data for alumni.

Second, every two years, community colleges should eliminate 10% of their programs that generate the lowest wages for their graduates. But eliminating low-wage programs is not enough. For every program that the college eliminates, it must replace that program with one that generates higher average salaries.

Third, community colleges should reject requests from local employers to create training programs for jobs that pay poverty wages. That means asking employers to commit to paying living wages for people who complete the training program.

Fourth, it means monitoring local wage data. It isn’t sufficient to peg starting wages at WCC to a figure like $15. Administrators must commit to raising the wage floor by at least the rate of inflation every year. This will ensure that over time, the buying power of the lowest paid employees remains within shouting distance of a living wage.

Fifth, community college executives should commit to finding ways to increase the market value of their institution’s graduates. That may mean modifying programs, improving student advising, creating better liaisons with local employers, or paying close attention to emerging skill gaps among the local workforce.

Finally, the Board should tie executive “incentives” to alumni earnings. If overpaying executives to churn out low-wage graduates doesn’t work for the students, it shouldn’t work for the executives either.

Photo Credit: Spiff , via Flickr