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Time to produce strategies to increase in-district enrollment

New high school data graduation data published last month show that the enrollment picture for higher education looks dim. Immediate college enrollment by the high school Class of 2020 dropped by as much as 10% from 2019.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, poverty is a determining factor in post-secondary enrollment decisions. Enrollment among students from low-income and high-poverty schools dropped by more than 10%. In contrast, 65% -73% of students from high-income families and students who attended low-poverty schools enrolled in college classes immediately after high school graduation.

Persistence – defined as continued enrollment one year after initial enrollment – was highest among students from high income households. Eighty-eight percent of these students returned to complete a second year of post-secondary classes. Students from low income households returned less often – at a rate of 79%.

Sixty percent of high-income students completed degree programs within six years of high school graduations. In comparison, only 24% of students from low-income households earned a degree in the same time.

STEM degrees were not the answer for low-income respondents. According to survey data, both white and minority students chose STEM programs at the same rate (18%) upon initial registration. Seventeen percent of white students completed a STEM degree, while only 11% of minority students earned a STEM diploma. At initial registration, both white and minority students and high- and low-income students indicated an interest in engineering programs. By graduation, engineering was one of the top-five most common majors only among graduates of high income schools.

And a “gap year” approach to post-secondary education didn’t work either. Only about 2% of high school students who declined to enroll in college in Fall 2021 appeared in classrooms in Fall 2022. That leaves the Class of 2024 (assuming a four-year degree) short on students.

Few reasons to consider post-secondary enrollment

Increasingly, high school graduates plan to forgo post-secondary education altogether. Many elements factor into their decision, but the calculation isn’t very hard. Rising attendance costs and growth in educational debt leave few options. Severely depressed wages have all but eliminated the option to work one’s way through school. (The federal minimum wage hasn’t risen in more than a decade. Michigan’s minimum wage rose by 30% between 2011 and 2021, but even that has barely kept pace with inflation. And the increased earnings that result from completing a degree do not pay for the educational debt students incur.

Simply increasing college enrollment cannot be the entire goal, however. Currently, WCC enrolls about half of its students from out of the district. The administration has heavily discounted online tuition, which means that Washtenaw County residents are subsidizing the education of students throughout the United States. Washtenaw County reaps exactly no benefit from this strategy, since out-of-district students do not generate economic activity here.

Washtenaw County residents have given more than a quarter-billion dollars in aid to WCC in the past five years. We have done so for the purpose of developing our economy and economic resources in our county. And the Board of Trustees has installed an out-of-district administration that is committed to giving our investment away.

It is time for residents to demand that the WCC administration produce viable strategies for increasing in-district enrollment. It is also time to stop subsidizing the education of people who will never set foot in Washtenaw County.

Photo Credit: casjsa, via Flickr