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Prospective students measure cost of a degree against value

Community colleges are in a difficult place right now. Enrollment is down by 10% over last year, and fewer students have completed the FAFSA for the Fall 2021 semester. And the cost of a degree us rising. On the other hand, the enrollment declines at four-year institutions are less noticeable. For many reasons, more students are opting to enroll in four-year institutions.

If I were a high school senior today, one of the things I would be looking at is the “efficiency” of a two-year degree. I can get an Associate degree in two years and the cost of a degree is about $7,500. That degree will provide an average salary of $18 per hour in Michigan. Annualized, that’s about $37,500.

On the other hand, I can get a bachelor’s degree in four year for about $35,600. That will enable me to earn an average wage of $32.50 per hour. Annualized, that’s about $68,000. At four year schools, the cost of a degree is significantly higher, but it will also enable me to earn significantly more. Over a lifetime, the difference is staggering.

To enroll more students over the long term, community colleges must find a way to improve the earning potential of their graduates. It’s becoming harder to justify the time and expense of going to a community college when the rewards include an annual salary in the mid-30’s.

But community college’ don’t just serve high school graduates. They also serve adult learners who want to change careers or re-enter the workforce. For an adult, who may have a family to support, an $18/hour average salary isn’t good enough.

Free community college changes only the cost of a degree

Although free community college programs will help students who could not otherwise afford the tuition, the real selling point is not the cost of a degree, but rather the economic results it can produce.

When community colleges can confidently produce graduates whose earning potential exceeds $18 per hour, their classrooms will be full. Until that time, two-year colleges will have a serious value deficit to contend with.

Creating new academic programs that respond to the changing needs of the labor market is, no doubt, important. But community colleges must not just aim to meet the narrow needs of employers. When two-year schools take that approach, communities are forced to contend with problems created by employers and industries that have a vested interest in keeping employee wages low. As we’ve seen with auto body repair programs, when the industry has too much direct influence over wages, they can destabilize the free market treatment of in-demand skills.

Community colleges simply must figure out a way to put more lifetime value into their degrees if they want to see their enrollments increase.

Photo Credit: The US Army , via Flickr