Press "Enter" to skip to content

Community college affordability issue isn’t going away

Yesterday, I wrote about community college affordability for low-income students. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) released new data earlier this month that examined the affordability of public higher education institutions. The data showed that 6 out of 10 Pell Grant recipients could not afford community college attendance.

The NCAN analysis labeled a community college as “affordable” if the total price of attendance for in-state students living off campus plus $300 in emergency aid was less than or equal to the combined total of a student’s grant aid, loans, federal work study, expected family contribution and summer wages.

NCAN labels Washtenaw Community College as “affordable.” Forty percent of community colleges in Michigan are not. Macomb Community College, for example, is not affordable. This is disappointing because the current WCC Administration looks at MCC as a model for how a community college should operate.

But before getting comfortable with WCC’s affordability, note that it dropped by 21% over the course of one year. The drop in affordability did not result from increased costs. WCC had the same cost of attendance in 2017-18 as it did in 2018-19. It resulted from declines in federal student loan amounts, federal work-study awards and a drop in the average Pell Grant award. Even when WCC holds its cost of attendance constant, the decline in federal financial aid can make WCC less affordable.

Community college affordability can stop poverty

It doesn’t help that the WCC Board of Trustees is loaded with people who simply don’t understand how poverty works. They have had no personal experience with poverty or making ends meet on minimum-wage salaries. Likely, they charge more to their credit cards each month than most WCC students earn in a semester. So, when they say they don’t have a problem with handing the students an extra $10 per credit hour fee, they demonstrate how out-of-touch they really are.

The maddening part is that their own failure to exercise actual fiscal oversight over the WCC Administration is the reason WCC wants the fee in the first place. When you combine uncontrolled Administration spending with trustees who are asleep at the wheel, you’re going to have problems.

And community college affordability is a major issue for students. Why should they spend their savings, work 60 hours per week and take student loans to remain enrolled? Analysis of WCC’s enrollment compared to its tuition rate show that students leave when tuition rises. Even by just a little bit. So, the much sought-after facilities fee will result in more money in WCC’s coffers, but fewer students in its classrooms.

Trustees who understand poverty would help

Having Trustees who can at least understand the impact of poverty on a family is important. Having Trustees who advocate on behalf of students is apparently too much to ask. For example, keeping expenses low is actually a form of advocacy for the students. It also demonstrates respect to the taxpayers who so generously fund WCC. But the Trustees never turn down WCC administration spending requests. They never ask questions about where the money goes.

So, when the CFO announces in the student newspaper that a multi-year website redesign project had no budget, and he has no idea how much the project cost, that would be a good time to start asking some questions. When the Administration – after having spent years and millions on such a project – throws it all away without using any of it, that would be the ideal time to ask even more questions.

WCC cannot control how much federal financial aid a student receives or how much the average Pell Grant is worth. But they can control how much they spend each year and how they spend it. And expenses have a big impact on community college affordability. Fortunately, they’re one of the few elements of community college affordability that WCC can control. Unfortunately, the WCC Trustees choose not to.

Photo Credit: State of Michigan