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Low income students cannot afford community college

New data released by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) shows that 6 out of 10 low-income students could not afford to remain enrolled in community college classes in 2018-19. Even when a Pell Grant covered most or all of a student’s tuition, community colleges were still unaffordable. A cost study in 2014-15 showed that 5 of 10 community college Pell Grant recipients could not afford to remain enrolled.

Many low-income students must continue to work full-time or more to afford basics like housing, food, transportation, childcare and healthcare. The need to work – often in low-wage occupations – competes with the time required to complete a college degree. While Pell Grants can provide significant financial assistance, they are capped both in terms of the amount and number of semesters available.

The NCAN analysis found that the gap between what community college Pell Grant recipients got and what they needed in 2018-19 exceeded $1,150. A minimum-wage worker in 2018 in Michigan would have to work an additional 140 hours to close that gap. That assumes an effective hourly wage of $8.30 after taxes. For people who may already be working 40-60 hours per week, that gap is insurmountable. So, students in this position make the only logical choice: they leave school.

Tuition and fee increases eliminate low-income students from campus

In this context, incessant chatter by WCC Administrators about rich communities, facilities fees and tuition increases seem rather tone-deaf. Going to school requires the one thing students have very little of: time. They spend most of their time working to make ends meet. Balancing the additional demands of school requires them to either spend less time at work or find non-existent “spare” time to attend classes and study. In either case, they jeopardize their already-precarious finances. The NCAN data show that most simply don’t succeed.

The problem goes beyond WCC administrators who resist cutting expenses in favor of raising tuition and fees. Certain Trustees cannot see WCC’s low tuition rates and on-campus services like childcare for low-income students as anything but a handout. They cannot see academic programs like Culinary Arts as an advancement path for students who already work in the hospitality industry. Nor do they care that moves like outsourcing the IT Department, failing to perform timely maintenance on College buildings and unrestrained executive management growth unnecessarily cost the College more money.

Certain Trustees blindly hope that revenue-generation schemes will reduce or eliminate WCC’s need for community funding. As a result, they go all-in on financial disasters like the Health and Fitness Center. (And worse, they borrowed money over 20 years to pay for it!) They consider building a hotel and convention center to support summer training programs that – by their own CFO’s admission – generate insignificant revenue for WCC.

Community college affordability is not a handout

The Administration cannot see WCC’s low tuition and fees as anything but an opportunity to raise additional revenue. So, they justify the new fees and tuition increases by saying, “Other community colleges do this! Why shouldn’t we?”

Community colleges are not cartels, so it does not matter what the other community colleges do to fund their operations. WCC does not need to follow suit. Community colleges lift people out of poverty. They can’t do that when they’re too expensive for impoverished people to afford.

To succeed, WCC needs Trustees who can look beyond their own personal tax bills to address community needs. WCC needs Trustees who firmly reject the tiresome political position that public education is a handout to low-income residents. We need Trustees who refuse to divert WCC’s operating dollars to revenue-generation schemes in service to that hateful, divisive philosophy.

At some point, someone must recognize that spending more on administration just generates more spending without generating additional value. And that cutting unnecessary expenses (10 vice presidents) raises revenues as effectively as new fees and tuition hikes do.

Photo Credit: Reza, via Flickr