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Living wage questions value of associate degree

Living wage questions value of associate degree[/caption]I have written frequently about the value of an associate degree. Unfortunately, community colleges have not kept pace with the inflationary pressures that American households experience. And when I say this, I mean that the academic programs at community colleges don’t enable people to take jobs that pay a living wage.

Defining a living wage isn’t easy. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator attempts to define an hourly wage that’s required to live in any specific county in the United States. According to the LWC, the current living wage for Washtenaw County is $18.87 for an individual with no children. Annualized, that is $39,250. For someone with one child in Washtenaw County, this figure increases to an eye-watering $89,000 per year.

Don’t confuse “living wage” with “poverty.” The two conditions are different. The federal poverty level (FPL) for individuals in 2023 is $14,580. That works out to an hourly wage of $7 per hour. (Which is silly, since the federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, or $15,080. Which is also silly.

The FPL does not proclaim that an individual can somehow actually live on $14,581 or more dollars per year. It’s just a statistical marker. Poverty is far more nuanced than that. It depends on where people live, how much they make, how many people are in a single household, their household expenses, their debt-to-earnings ratio, the inflation rate, and other very real circumstances.

This means the “job-market value” of an associate degree is a continuously moving target. Community college administrations need to pay careful and unbroken attention to the kind of lifestyle that their community college graduates can lead. If they don’t, a community college is merely a factory that produces households that cannot support themselves.

Associate degree has to return more than nothing to the community

It is not merely pointless to train people for occupations that cannot minimally generate a living wage salary. It is actively harmful to entice people to believe they can simultaneously have a low-wage occupation and operate a household. There is no greater disrespect a community college can show to its taxpayer-supporters than to generate graduates who cannot support themselves or their families.

In Washtenaw County, we invest millions of dollars every year to support Washtenaw Community College. Instead of generating economic opportunities for individuals, and preparing the region for diverse economic opportunities, the WCC administration has focused primarily on enlarging its ranks and remuneration, while at the same time neglecting the facilities, reducing the number of degree programs, and increasing the College’s reliance on part-time faculty members.

I don’t have anything against part-time faculty members, but they do not fulfill the same functions as full-time instructors do. Full-time instructors develop academic programs and courses. Without them, there are no improvements to existing courses and no new academic programs. There is no growth in the enrollment, and there is no opportunity for economic development in the region. Part-time instructors sustain what has already been developed by others. They deliver instruction at a much lower cost to the College than full-time instructors do. (That’s not a good thing.)

Typically, part-time instructors have full-time jobs elsewhere. Alternately, they may attempt to pull together several teaching contracts each semester to fashion a quasi-full-time job. This might even involve teaching at multiple institutions. Colleges typically string adjunct instructors along with vague hints about replacing a full-time instructor when he or she retires someday. Heavy reliance on adjunct instruction is not good for the students or the teachers. Ultimately, it’s not good for the College, which means it’s not good for the community.

Photo Credit: go digital, via Flickr