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Community colleges must improve degree value

Yesterday, I wrote about why Gen Z adults aren’t as enthusiastic about going to college as their Millennial counterparts had been. The two options – universities and community colleges – both represent money problems for Gen Z students. One route costs too much; the other delivers minimal value.

Community colleges could use at least two strategies to bring Gen Z adults into their classrooms, but they rely, in part, on delivering a positive and meaningful social experience on campus and providing training for high-wage, high demand jobs.

Different students need different things, and not all students value the campus experience, but Gen Z does. They crave meaning in their lives, in both their interactions with other people and in the work they’re doing. Crafting the on-campus student experience carefully to ensure that it delivers opportunities for meaningful interactions is one of the ways to add more value to experience community colleges provide.

This is why the shift to online degree programs and short-duration certificates is such a poor strategy. With them, community colleges have little potential to attract Gen Z students because they short-circuit the in-person interactions that Gen Z students want and limit the post-graduation market value of the available programs.

And meaningful interaction isn’t limited to on-campus social experiences. For example, paid internships would add substantial value to a program of study. Employers are reluctant to hire Gen Z workers because they claim Gen Z workers lack workplace skills, so putting them in work environments as part of a program of study would provide valuable workplace experience as well as meaningful personal interactions.

I would argue that all community college students – regardless of age – need high-wage, high-demand jobs. But if you’re going to make the case that a college degree is valuable, you need to put some value in it.

Community colleges need to focus on high-wage programs

Right now, the living wage in Washtenaw County is nearly $48,000 for a single person with no dependents. This number rises to $85,350 for a single adult with one dependent. For a household with two adults, the household must generate $63,600. Add a child to that household and the minimum required income rises to $76,130. If these don’t sound like wages a 2-year degree can generate, then that’s why community college enrollment is shrinking.

With a household income of $63,600, two adults could afford the house payment on a $220,000 house. With a household income of $76,130, that family could afford a house payment on a $265,000 house. On the reported average salary for WCC graduates ($36,000), an affordable house is one in the $130,000 range. The current listings in this price range include uninhabitable houses, vacant land, and mobile homes.

Tomorrow, I will discuss why the current condition of the housing market is so critical to WCC’s ability to rebuild its enrollment.

Photo Credit: 401(k) 2012, via Flickr