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Breaking into the middle class is getting more expensive

The Pew Research Center released a report today on the cost of getting into the middle class. Currently, about half of American households are designated as being in that category. That’s down from 61% in the 1970’s.

So, what does it take to be in the middle class? According to Pew’s definition, a household meets the definition if its income falls between two-thirds and twice the median household income. Currently, that means households with annual earnings between $47,200 and $141,600 are middle income households.

In the Detroit metropolitan area, the definition of middle income is a little different. The income range for the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is between $45K and $134K. In Washtenaw County, the median household income is $79,200. That means middle income households here are those earning between $52,800 and $158,400. That’s between $25 and $76 per hour.

The average WCC degree comes up a little shy of the low end of that range. Using data from the Department of Education from 2021, the average WCC graduate can expect to earn $35,700 ten years after starting at WCC. That’s just two-thirds of two-thirds of the median household income in Washtenaw County.

The low end of the middle class definition for Washtenaw County explains why enrollment at WCC is dropping. It also shows how much work WCC needs to do to increase the value of its degrees. When a degree program does not provide a reliable pathway to the middle class, there is little incentive for people to enroll in classes. Attending WCC has become an ineffective route to the middle class.

Middle class income should be lowest acceptable community college outcome

Washtenaw County is an expensive place to live. If WCC cannot offer programs that enable students to earn their way into the middle class, then it has utterly failed in its mission. Currently, with an average post-attendance income of less than $40,000, WCC is creating ALICE households. Washtenaw County does not need more households on the economic margins. Someone has to start asking why this is acceptable.

WCC needs to address the ever-increasing gap between a WCC grad’s income and the low bar of the middle class. If the current administration cannot do that, as a community, we need to re-evaluate what we’re doing with WCC.

The taxpayers pour huge sums of money into WCC every year. If the best outcome is a large number of people who will not ever crack the lowest end of the middle class, then what exactly are we doing?

Photo Credit: Eric Gravengaard , via Flickr