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Making faulty assumptions about community colleges

In January, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivered her State of the State address to the legislature. Among her plans are to open Michigan’s community colleges to all high school graduates. In the speech, she stated that an associate degree could allow a graduate to earn $23,000 more per year.

That’s not the outcome for most community college graduates, and we know that most community college students don’t even graduate. (If a guaranteed income boost of $23,000 awaited community college students, we’d have more community college graduates, guaranteed.) We also know that most community college students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree don’t end up with that result either.

I can’t count the number of articles and opinion pieces that declare community colleges to be the solution to an area’s economic and employment problems. “If only we could put more students through community colleges…”

The faultiest of the many faulty assumptions people make about community colleges is that they’re prepared to churn out zillions of graduates and route them immediately into high-wage jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Community colleges are not prepared to put people into high wage jobs because their administrations have chronically starved their occupational education programs.

They’ve systematically eliminated occupational education programs because of their high cost or because “the college loses money on this program.” Publicly funded educational institutions are classified as non-profit entities. Community college administrators who justify cutting occupational education programs because they do not make money are engaging in profit-seeking behavior and should be fired immediately.

It’s fine to cut programs that don’t allow graduates to earn a living wage, or that are obsolete. It’s not fine to cut programs because they fail to enrich the college.

Community colleges aren’t prepared to act

It’s also problematic to fail to invest in new programs regularly. Every community college should have an annual budget devoted to the creation of new, high-wage occupational education programs. Minimally, a college the size of WCC should be producing a new high wage academic program every year, especially given the tens of millions of dollars that Washtenaw County taxpayers put into the institution annually.

I fully understand that creating a new occupational education program from the ground up is expensive. Depending on the program, it can take more than a year to create it, design and build the facilities, recruit qualified faculty, and attract students. It can also require hundreds of thousands of dollars – or even millions. Sifting through the existing course catalog and mashing new certificate programs together is a poor substitute for actual occupational program development. But that’s what has happened at WCC for years.

But WCC is not absent these resources. Imagine the programs that WCC could offer if it wasn’t spending millions annually on the Vice President of the Month Club. Or diverting millions of dollars to wasteful endeavors like the Health and Fitness Center. Or planning non-academic buildings.

Imagine how much MORE money WCC would have available to it if it budgeted and spent more on (vastly cheaper) regular and preventative maintenance for the facilities, instead of paying for (ungodly expensive) crisis maintenance when something major fails. Instead, these foolish expenditures haven’t even left the glass half-empty. There’s really nothing left to work with.

Community colleges aren’t prepared to provide the educational opportunities that the Governor (or even the average student) has in mind. Their lack of investment in educational program development has rendered community colleges virtually useless as a tool for economic development.

Photo Credit: Susanne Nilsson, via Flickr