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Creativity can address college enrollment declines, poverty

Community college administrators (including those at Washtenaw Community College) have worried about enrollment declines for some time. Based on a prolonged decline in the overall birthrate, schools – from kindergarten through university – have cautiously eyed their enrollment prospects. They don’t like what they see.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) predicts that Washtenaw County will experience the counter-trend – a school-age population increase. The birthrate is what it is, and SEMCOG made its predictions about where the school-age crowd will land prior to COVID-19. No one knows the ultimate effect of the pandemic, but online schooling may factor into the movement of K-12 students.

The age of the student matters in the K-12 system and at 4-year universities. The age of the student drives the entire K-12 system. Universities expect to populate their incoming freshman classes with 17- and 18-year-olds – and the occasional 19-year old. Transfer students will join their age-matched peers over time to fill in gaps from attrition in the cohort. Non-traditional students will always be on campus, but not in large numbers.

Community colleges differ. The largest demographic group is 18-24-year olds. The second largest demographic group at a community college includes 25-34 year old students. In other words, student age doesn’t correlate to the enrollment at a community college like it does in the K-12 and baccalaureate university systems.

The coming “baby bust” has a strong potential to disrupt K-12 school districts and 4-year universities. But community colleges serve students of all ages. If community college administrators worry about enrollment declines among 18-24-year-olds, they should recruit students in other age brackets.

Ample opportunity to boost college enrollment in Michigan

One million Michigan adults have started (but not finished) a college degree. 10% of adults aged 25+ lack a high school diploma or GED. Less than half of these adults are gainfully employed. When they are, they occupy the lowest-wage jobs. Not surprisingly, the lack of a high school diploma is strongly correlated with poverty and incarceration. More than half of all federal inmates, two-thirds of state inmates and 7 out of 10 county jail inmates never graduated from high school.

In terms of adult education, Michigan has a lot of work to do. Wasting educational dollars on building a hotel or conference center is absurd. We need creative strategies to address the educational deficits of Washtenaw County residents and reduce Washtenaw County’s above-average poverty rate.

Using WCC’s current tuition and fees, an additional 500 full-time students would generate more than $1.25M in tuition revenues each year. It is easier, cheaper and more beneficial to recruit new students than it is to chase limited revenues from non-core-mission sources, like hotels, conference centers and the Health and Fitness Center.

Not every adult living in poverty will migrate to a classroom, but 500 people is just 1% of our impoverished residents. Enrolling 1% of Washtenaw County’s poorest residents into a GED and/or degree program annually would generate $1.25M in new tuition revenue.

If the WCC administration’s best idea for reducing poverty is to build a hotel, and the Trustees approve that, then the wrong people are making decisions for Washtenaw Community College.

WCCWatch: Martin Thomas | WCCWatch: David DeVarti | WCCWatch: Christina Fleming | WCCWatch: Ruth Hatcher

Photo Credit: Joanna Poe , via Flickr