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Community college may not be ready for state investment

No one knows what the impact would be of eliminating community college tuition for recent high school graduates. While the plan signals an investment in Michigan’s post-secondary students, community colleges may not be the best place to make those investments. At least not right now.

Students and would-be students have been sending Michigan’s community college leadership a message for more than a decade. So far, it appears as though that message hasn’t been received. Or if it has, it’s been ignored.

The message is that the available degree programs won’t allow graduates to generate enough income to make their investment of time and money worth the effort. Instead of addressing this by developing new programs with significant income potential, some administrators have been content to develop non-degree certificate programs that return even less value than an associate degree does.

This indifference to the needs of prospective students is unacceptable. It makes it very hard for students to see the value in spending time in a community college classroom. It also makes for an easy choice when students need to prioritize the way they spend their time. About half of all community college students who drop out do so because they need to work.

Alone, that’s a message. It’s something along the lines of “I need money.” Instead of accommodating those needs, administrators develop programs that will get students into the workforce, but at the same time trap them in near-poverty and create few opportunities for advancement.

Entering the workforce without a degree is also a message. It says, “I can earn just as much by taking a job immediately after high school as I can going to a community college for two (or four or six) years to earn a degree and then seek a job.”

Community college administrators position their institutions as creating a transfer path to a four-year university. I don’t know if this qualifies as false advertising, malpractice, or both. The reality is that few community college students successfully transfer to a four-year university, and those who do rarely complete a four-year degree.

Community colleges could be a viable pathway to the middle class, just as they could be a viable pathway to a four-year degree. But that requires a lot more work on the part of administrators. It would require the administrators to be intentional about the academic programs they create. Administrators would have to hold their academic programs to performance standards and eliminate those programs that can’t or don’t enable students to maximize their earnings following graduation.

Community colleges can’t focus on the needs of employers exclusively. That implies that workers are simply components and community colleges merely need to feed the employer’s machine with new fodder every year. Community college administrations need to balance the needs of the students against the needs of employers and the community at large.

Part of that balance involves recognizing the need for students to have access to high wage job opportunities. That involves setting aside money each year to develop new high-wage programs and eliminating low-wage ones. This is a critical step. It not only raises the average earnings of all graduates, but also prevents students from being marooned in low-wage occupations.

Likewise, community colleges need to do a much better job of preparing their students to transfer to a four-year university. Maybe that means increasing the academic rigor of transfer courses, broadening the courses available, or just working more closely with the target institution to make the student’s academic, financial, and social transitions as smooth as possible.

Photo Credit: Nicolas Nova, via Flickr