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Community college enrollment has a simple fix

California’s steep decline in community college enrollment is still making news. Since the Great Recession, California’s two-year colleges have shed nearly a million students. Administrators claim they don’t understand why their campuses aren’t attracting students like they have in the past.

It’s really not that hard to figure out. California has the third-highest cost of living, behind only Hawaii and New York. California sits in second place in certain key household expenses – specifically utilities, transportation, and healthcare. On the other side of the equation, the median household income for a family of four is $105,200. That sounds good until you consider that the same family of four needs a median household income of $110,300 to make ends meet.

The mystery of the community college enrollment decline is no mystery at all. It’s a simple math problem: money in < money out. It's the same problem that faces every household everywhere. Money coming in must be greater than or equal to money going out. No other arrangement will work. Community colleges across the country have tried hard to zero out the cost of acquiring an education. Unfortunately, the cost of acquiring a community college degree is not the problem. It's the cost of having a community college degree that hurts.

A community college education is no longer a ticket into the middle class. In 2022, the middle class starts at a bachelor’s degree. If community colleges are serious about increasing enrollment, they will need to develop programs that enable their graduates to access the increasingly elusive middle economic tier.

The fact that most (not all) jobs that require an associate degree don’t pay enough to enter (or stay in) the middle class should end the community college enrollment discussion. But it doesn’t.

Outcomes will drive community college enrollment

If increasing community college enrollment is a high priority, it will require community colleges to design a lot of new academic programs that prepare students to fill high-paying, high-demand jobs. It will also require them to eliminate all programs designed to fill low-wage jobs. There is no economic or strategic reason to prepare someone to fill a low-wage job, so community colleges should stop doing that.

So, you might argue that many necessary jobs don’t pay very well. (Home health aides and childcare providers, for example.) Guess what? The free market is perfectly capable of correcting that. If an occupation is so necessary that the community cannot do without it, then the wages should reflect that. The community college should have no obligation to educate people to fill jobs that will not generate a living wage.

Community colleges don’t need to be selective about the students they take in, but they do need to be rigorously selective about the programs they offer. When they focus studiously on economic outcomes for their graduates, community college enrollment will rise again.

Photo Credit: owlpacino , via Flickr