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Community colleges must combat negative utility

There is no way around it: the value proposition of a community college degree matters. In fact, it matters so much that would-be students bypass community colleges altogether when they can’t make the numbers work.

And they’re not the numbers you might think. While “free college” currently captures a lot of attention, that’s not the most important number. Instead, it’s the income potential relative to the investment of the student’s time that matters. Dwindling enrollment in community colleges even when 60% of states have free community college programs may mean only one thing: two-year degrees and certificates have entered an economic condition called “negative utility.”

Negative utility describes the point at which consumption of another unit of a good or service is completely undesirable. Grinding out an associate degree or a certificate is not desirable because the effort does not reliably translate into income.

As the FREOPP analysis showed, there are few community college degree and certificate programs that produce reliable return-on-investment. Outside of the narrow range of programs (which include registered nursing, automotive and mechanic-related occupations, HVAC, etc.) there are few real economic opportunities. Even among computer science programs, only 7 out of 10 students will see a positive ROI.

There’s another angle in play here. Community college graduates don’t see major economic returns on their investment because employers don’t see much value in two-year degrees or certificates. That’s somewhat ironic, given that community college administrators claim to have tailored their occupational programs to meet the needs of community employers. The results– how much employers are willing to pay for community college graduates – beg to differ.

Community Colleges Need to Deliver Value

This is a mess that community college administrators have made. It’s one they’re completely unaware of, or they knew about and ignored. Either way, it’s a bad look.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this strategy fall almost exclusively on low-income students, minorities, single parents, mid-life career changers and people facing a wide range of other academic challenges. One of the most important consequences is that it has become exceedingly difficult for lower-income households to climb into the middle class.

One real growth area at Washtenaw Community College has been the size (and cost) of the WCC administration. While fewer students enroll in classes and fewer graduates benefit from their studies, the administration has grown to include 13 vice presidents. That’s an extraordinary number of executives for a mid-sized community college. In fact, no other community college in the US of Washtenaw’s size has that many vice presidents.

The Washtenaw Community College Board of Trustees apparently doesn’t have a problem with any of this. There is no accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars Washtenaw County taxpayers pour into WCC each decade. The Board signs off on literally everything the administration puts in front of it, most often with no questions asked.

To me, the limited value of a Washtenaw Community College degree is an existential question. If a WCC degree can’t get someone into the middle class, why pay for a community college at all?

Photo Credit: Sustainable Economies Law Center, via Flickr