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Making the most of free community college

There is a lot of talk about free community college. Many states have even adopted some form of it as part of their economic recovery plans. Michigan currently funds two free tuition programs for applicants who qualify.

Futures for Frontliners, the first of Michigan’s two programs, accepted 120,000 applicants. Nearly 20,000 of those applicants are currently enrolled or have finished at least one semester. The second program, Michigan Reconnect, has taken in nearly 80,000 applicants. There is no shortage of demand for free access to the state’s community colleges.

In addition, the federal government is considering a universal free community college program. Most voters support it, but many in Congress do not. If adopted, the programs could drop tens of millions of dollars into community college budgets.

While the programs will (and may continue) to provide a financial lifeline for two-year institutions that have found themselves struggling to find students, they also create a responsibility for community colleges to offer the highest-quality educational programs for students who enroll.

This responsibility includes the creation of new occupational and vocational programs to address changing needs in technology, manufacturing, energy, health care and other emerging fields. It also includes updating existing programs to ensure that they remain relevant in the context of growth and employment. Finally, community colleges must weed out end-of-life degree programs that do not enable graduates to make a living wage or remain employed reliably.

Free community college can benefit four-year schools, too

Many students who enroll in a community college intend to a four-year university, however few of them actually do. In the same way that community colleges must improve the quality of occupational and vocational programs, they must also improve the transfer pipeline. By doing this, they can extend the full benefit of free community college programs to four-year institutions.

While community colleges like WCC have always worked with community employers, it is imperative to remember the goals, needs and desires of the student, too. In the past two decades, there has been a concerted effort to “dumb down” the curriculum. The rationale is to speed the student through a program and make them available to employers more quickly. The mechanisms to accomplish this include everything from paring down course content and eliminating textbooks to dropping prerequisite courses and relying more heavily on part-time instructors.

That may accomplish the employers’ narrowest goals, but it doesn’t work for the students. No student wants to waste time and money to acquire minimal training and non-transferable skills. That merely lands them in low-paying jobs with few prospects for advancement.

The cost-benefit analysis of a two-year degree is painfully simple

As I wrote yesterday, it may also account for the steep decline in community college enrollment. Less prepared transfer students must repeat foundational courses at more expensive institutions, limiting the value of free community college. Gutting vocational and occupational programs depress earnings and make upward mobility more difficult.

If a community college degree increases a graduate’s average hourly wages by only $2.67, it makes the enrollment decision very easy. A worker with a high school diploma can duplicate the economic benefit of earning a two-year degree simply by working one hour of overtime every day. The worker also eliminates the cost of attendance and the time required to earn the degree.

Having a less educated workforce benefits a limited number of individuals at the expense of many. That isn’t why the taxpayers funded community colleges. The taxpayers must hold the community college administration and the elected Board of Trustees accountable for the sharp drop in value of a two-year degree.

Photo Credit: Shawn Clover, via Flickr