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Focus on free community college neglects the obvious

Many people are focused on free community college lately. While Congressional Democrats were unable to make that a reality, many states have created tuition-free community college programs. But is the focus on free tuition misplaced?

States – including Michigan – have turned to free community college programs to bolster enrollment at public, two-year schools. Boosting college enrollment is good, but to date, the overwhelming interest in free community college hasn’t translated into actual students. Michigan’s community college enrollment dropped by nearly 12.5% between Winter 2020 and Winter 2021.

Focusing on the input – getting students into community colleges – isn’t boosting enrollment, even when zero-cost attendance is on the table. Perhaps it is time to focus on community college output to see why students aren’t enrolling.

At the end of the day, students must have a reason to attend school. Spending a year or two (or four or six) to increase one’s annual income by $2K to $3K isn’t a powerful draw. This is especially true when inflation rises. Inflation won’t remain low in all economic circumstances, so even small variations in inflation can completely consume such a modest increase in salary.

Inflation alone isn’t the only culprit. The cost of housing is a good example. The median home price in Michigan rose by nearly 18.5% between 2020 and 2021. That’s more than four times the rate of inflation. Rent in Michigan rose nearly 7.5% between 2020 and 2021. That’s still nearly twice the rate of inflation. Food costs grew on average by 3.3% in 2021. Healthcare costs are predicted to rise in Michigan in 2022 by 4.7%. However, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, personal income in Michigan between Q4 2019 and Q2 2021 grew by just 3.66%.

Free community college won’t add value to the degree

This is why people are not enrolling in the era of free community college. They can’t afford to. No matter how free you make the education, the income potential after community college graduation is abysmal. People cannot afford to lock themselves into low-wage occupations, so what is the point in training for those careers?
If community college administrators, state legislators and state executives are serious -really serious – about increasing enrollment in community colleges, they need to create academic programs that lead to high-wage employment opportunities in high-demand fields.
It’s really just that simple. Increasing community college enrollment is not simply a matter of paying for students’ tuition. Instead, it’s about making sure that students can make money after graduation. If people can’t see the value in having a degree, they’re simply not going to enroll.

Photo Credit: 401(k) 2012, via Flickr