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Community college affordability question returns

A recent opinion piece in Forbes questions the need for free community college. The claims that community college affordability eliminates the need for free tuition.

Community college affordability depends upon who you ask.

The author cites data from The College Board , which shows the average annual tuition and fees at a US community college is $3,770 per year. If a worker loses 15% of his or her income to payroll taxes and other deductions, it takes gross earnings of about $4,500 to net $3,770. At Michigan’s minimum wage ($9.65), that would require 460 hours of work. (It would take 620 hours of work at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, which – shamefully – 20 states actually use.)

460 hours is nearly a quarter of a full-time effort. Most people who make minimum wage from a full-time job can’t afford to pay 22% of their salary to go to school. Period.

Therein lies the problem.

Community college affordability depends on who you ask

People who make a lot of money look at $3,770 and say, “That’s not a lot of money!” People who make minimum wage or work less than full time say, “Where am I going to get that?” And they’re both right. To the person who makes $100,000 or more each year, $3,770 is a trivial amount. To the person who is stuck in subsistence, it’s an insurmountable barrier.

Unfortunately, the WCC Board of Trustees is loaded with people in the first group, who think that $3,770 or $105 per credit hour, or a $10 per credit hour fee is affordable to people who make minimum wage. Or work less than full-time. Or both. Ironically, they’re the same people who cannot tolerate a 0.25 mill increase on their property tax bill for any reason. (A 0.25 mill tax represents $0.25 per $1,000 of taxable valuation.)

Between Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect, about 200,000 Michiganders have applied for free community college tuition under those programs. If, as the Forbes author posits, community college is already affordable, that would be news to the 200,000 people in Michigan who think they cannot otherwise afford to attend a community college.

We need more WCC Trustees who believe that $3,770 is a lot of money for someone who makes $9.65 per hour. And we need fewer Trustees whose chief concern is the bottom line on their tax bill. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fiscal accountability. But it’s a little odd to watch Trustees guard their own tax bills to the death while simultaneously authorizing whatever spending request the WCC administration puts in front of them.

Their “fiscal responsibility” does not extend to your money.

Photo Credit: Pictures of Money , via Flickr