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The mixed messages of free community college tuition

More than 70,000 people in Michigan have applied to the “Futures for Frontliners” program, which provides free community college tuition to eligible frontline workers. In addition, the State Legislature authorized $30M in funding for Michigan Reconnect, a program that provides community college tuition for adults over 25. The most recent WCC millage request enables the College to provide free community college tuition for seniors 65 and older. In other words, WCC gives tuition to people who don’t need it, but the people who need free tuition can’t have it.

So, the question is, “Why does the WCC administration find it so difficult to embrace the idea of free community college tuition for Washtenaw County residents who are active in the workforce, or would like to be?”

Washtenaw County currently has a 16% poverty rate (pre-COVID-19). That is higher than the national average poverty rate. Doesn’t it make sense to provide resources to people who are eligible to work, but cannot afford to attend classes?

A one-mill tax devoted strictly to funding community college tuition for eligible county residents would raise around $18M per year and would cost about $50 per $100,000 of taxable value. $18M would potentially increase tuition revenues to the school by about 60%. It would fully fund about 2,400 degree-seeking individuals (at 60 credits) every year. If it were a “last-dollar” program, the money would go farther. A half-mill tax would serve about half as many people and cost half as much.

What would the net result of a free college tuition program be for Washtenaw County residents? Would it increase WCC’s graduation rate? Would it increase Washtenaw County’s employment rate? More importantly, would it decrease the poverty rate? (And aren’t all those things what a community college is supposed to do?)

Real economic development begins with education

Instead of figuring out how to make something like this happen, (or even how to increase enrollment some other way) our Trustees are busy dreaming up plans for a hotel and convention center. Such a plan would divert the dollars we already provide for the operation of WCC to the construction and operation of a completely unrelated, publicly funded business that competes with other businesses in Washtenaw County. And it would commit the taxpayers to supporting another maintenance nightmare.

They seem to have lost sight of the fact that it is less expensive, and more productive to put students in classrooms than it is to generate revenue in any other way. Giving people a career is the most authentic, most cost-effective economic development money can buy.

Unfortunately, generating “other revenue” has become the current Administration’s primary focus. Since the Trustees are apparently just along for the ride, they willingly go along with whatever get-rich-quick scheme the Administration proposes.

16% of Washtenaw County’s population lives below the poverty line. As taxpayers, we will give WCC almost $60M in 2020. The WCC Administration believes that the best use of that $60M is to build a hotel.

And when asked, this Board of Trustees will approve it. Guaranteed.

We need more Trustees who believe in the educational mission of the College.

WCCWatch: Martin Thomas | WCCWatch: David DeVarti | WCCWatch: Christina Fleming | WCCWatch: Ruth Hatcher

Photo Credit: Nathan Rupert, via Flickr