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Recent high school graduates avoid community college

Yesterday, MLive ran a story regarding the most popular enrollment destinations of Michigan’s high school students. In 2022-23, Washtenaw Community College checked in at #21 with an initial enrollment of 688 students. That means among all Michigan high school graduates, 688 of them – seven-tenths of one percent – enrolled in classes at Washtenaw Community College within six months of their high school graduation.

The problem with that number is that 10 years earlier, WCC enrolled 1,102 Michigan’s high school graduates, or 1.1% of the total graduating class. A decade ago, WCC enrolled more than 60% more recent high school graduates than it does now. That’s not attributable to lower overall enrollments from recent high school graduates. The actual percentage of enrolled students has dropped. While WCC is enrolling numerically fewer high school graduates, it’s also enrolling a smaller percentage of college-bound graduates.

WCC isn’t alone. Community colleges have been losing both headcount and the percentage of graduates pursue a higher education. Since 2019-2020, initial enrollment in community colleges is down by more than one-third. As a percentage of total enrollees, community colleges captured 37% of initial enrollments in 2019-2020. In 2022-2023, community colleges enrolled less than 29% of recent secondary school graduates. Comparatively, university enrollment by recent K-12 graduates in Michigan is down by about 5% over the same period.
So, the question is, Why aren’t high school graduates choosing a community college education? They’re worried about debt, so choosing the least expensive college option seems to make sense, right?

They don’t choose a community college education precisely because they’re worried about debt. Most community college degrees don’t generate enough income to avoid living in or near poverty. Certificates have even less income potential when they’re not paired with a college degree.

High school graduates are looking for economic opportunities

As a general rule, community colleges have not maintained their degree programs in a way that allows graduates to stay ahead of the cost of living. When college graduates cannot use their degrees to improve their income, their degrees were a waste of both time and money. Why should a recent high school graduate bother with WCC, when its graduates can’t even earn enough to live in Washtenaw County?

Where are the new occupational education programs? Why does WCC offer twice as many certificate programs as degree programs? And what’s going to happen when the Gainful Employment rules start knocking down whole swathes of WCC’s course catalog?

2026 can’t get here soon enough.

Photo Credit: Sascha Pohflepp , via Flickr