Over the last several days, I have written about Michigan’s personal income history and the problems it is causing the state. The United States Census Bureau recently delivered another reminder of the “moving target” nature of Michigan’s income problem. In 2022, Michigan household income declined by an average of 2.4%. That’s the eighth largest drop in household income in the US.
The need to address declining household income is pressing, and the target moves every year. In 2022, households in 17 states made less than they did in 2021. You can attribute much of these losses to inflation. Regardless, lost income is lost income, and Michigan seems to be pretty good at losing income.
That’s why it is critical for community colleges to focus on what they can do to increase income potential for their graduates. Continuing to offer low-wage, low-demand programs is a poor way to help the community, the students, and the state. (Remember, of course, that Michigan’s community colleges get the majority of their money from the community, the students, and the state.)
The returns should accrue to the funders, but for some reason, community colleges tend to focus nearly exclusively on the needs of employers. That strategy has gotten us to where we are today: high taxes in the community, dozens of programs that prepare students for low quality jobs, and low enrollment. (Isn’t it funny how no one wants low-wage work anymore?)
How different could our collective circumstances be if community colleges focused on creating programs that prepared students for high-wage, high demand jobs? What would happen if community colleges developed programs to increase specific capacities and attract new industries to the area as a result? How much household income would that add to the local economy?
Increasing household income must be a community college priority
Inflation will always drain buying power from US households. We need our community colleges to recognize that a $12/hour job is simply not good enough. Today, the opening ante in the living-wage arena approaches $50,000. When I first started writing about living wage incomes, the target rate was $40,000. Right now, those jobs don’t pay enough to keep pace with inflation or enter the middle class.
Washtenaw County has yet another factor to contend with: the cost of living in Washtenaw County is higher than it is in other parts of the State. Any academic programs must enable their graduates to make $45,000 – $50,000 per year. If they don’t, we will lose our newly trained workers to lower-cost cities and towns.
We need WCC to act like it’s here to serve the entire community and the various needs of its constituents. That means eliminating all the academic programs that lead to low wage employment and bringing in new high-value, high-demand programs that can allow a graduate to generate a minimum of $45,000 – $50,000 per year in an entry level position.
It also means setting aside enough money every year to fund the development of new programs, and re-evaluating programs regularly for their income capacity. The new gainful employment rules will help somewhat, and WCC’s exposure to these requirements is high since it offers so many certificate programs.
It’s unfortunate that it takes rules and regulations to force schools to adopt this strategy. How much better off would Washtenaw County be with a community college that willingly sought out opportunities to create new, high-value programs?
Photo Credit: Alabama Extension, via Flickr