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Free community college should have some strings attached

Last week, the Michigan Legislature approved a budget that includes a plan for free community college tuition for all high school graduates. The plan will enable eligible students to earn an associate degree or a skills certificate at no cost to them. Ordinarily, that would seem like a pretty good deal, but it assumes that community colleges offer degrees and certificate programs that will lead to living-wage employment.

Collectively, Michigan’s community colleges graduate fewer than one-quarter of the students they enroll. The average income for a Michigan community college student (regardless of completion status) ten years after initial enrollment is less than $37,400. Those are shocking numbers given the investment that communities, the State of Michigan, and the students themselves make in community college attendance.

The median income for Michigan community college students ten years after first enrollment is $37,000. That is 20% less than what’s needed to crack Michigan’s middle class and 30% less than what a person needs to live in Washtenaw County.

It raises (again) the legitimate question of whether the Governor intends to train a low-wage workforce with this focus on free community college, or merely misunderstands the opportunities that Michigan’s community colleges are currently tuned to. Requiring community colleges to dedicate a specific minimum budget each year to the development and delivery of high-wage, high demand degree programs would bring a certain level of efficiency to the effort.

Continued state funding for participating students should hinge upon the high wage potential of their occupational programs, the successful completion rates of their free community college students, and the performance and completion rates of graduates who transfer to four-year universities following their first two years at a community college.

Why free community college offer won’t attract students

Most high school graduates understand that doing a stint at one of Michigan’s two-year colleges (or in WCC’s case, a certificate school) offers them a 25% chance of successfully preparing themselves for a job that earns them 20% less than they need to make ends meet.

Regardless of how free community college gets here, it’s not hard to understand why that’s not a selling point. It’s also not hard to understand why a large percentage of Michigan’s young adults are leaving the state.

Michigan’s community colleges could offer career preparation for high-wage, high demand jobs. They could prepare the young adult workforce for good jobs in growing fields. Michigan’s free community college program – in fact – be the economic engine that Lansing wants and needs it to be.

Despite the fact that our community colleges have amassed one of the largest collections of “educational leadership” around, there’s very little actual leadership on display. Michigan’s community colleges focus so tightly on perpetuating the low-wage workforce that they do not seem to know – or care – that they’re driving away our young adult workforce. Young adults see no opportunities here. Our community colleges simply confirm that.

No free community college program is going to undo that until community colleges start offering legitimate pathways to meaningful work in growth industries.

Photo Credit: JLS Photography – Alaska, via Flickr