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Trustees Must Address Free College Failure

The promise of a free college education to potentially hundreds of thousands of Michiganders was completely lost on Washtenaw County. While Michigan’s community college enrollment bucked the national downward trend, Washtenaw Community College gained nothing. In fact, as thousands of new students flocked to Michigan’s two year institutions, WCC’s enrollment dropped by 6%.

WCC, located in one of the few growing Michigan counties, could not make sense of a massive state program designed to resuscitate community colleges. This isn’t to say that the state’s free college programs have attracted no students to WCC. Rather, even the enticement of free community college tuition was not enough to prevent an enrollment crash.

The inability to maximize two free community college programs can be seen only as a failure of the WCC administration. It is a failure that the Board of Trustees cannot leave unaddressed. In the past decade, the WCC administration has dedicated itself to self-enlargement. Ludicrously, WCC has 13 Vice Presidents, more than any other community college in the state, and quite possibly the country. (Honestly, I am still looking for a comparably sized community college with as many or more executives that WCC has. The closest I have come is statewide community college systems in places like Indiana, Texas and California.)

As the county’s tax appropriation has grown, so has the size of WCC’s administration. But that administrative bloat has not translated into increased enrollment, improved graduation rates, upgraded academic facilities, or new academic programs. The size of WCC’s full-time faculty has remained both strictly limited and smaller than the average professional teaching staff at most US community colleges.

Out-of-district students don’t get free college, but they do get quite a discount

Half of WCC’s students don’t live in Washtenaw County, yet many pay nearly the same tuition as in-district students do. Non-resident students who attend classes in-person pay the out-of-district tuition rate. Students who take online classes, on the other hand, pay what amounts to in-district tuition.

Problematically, Washtenaw County taxpayers heavily subsidize in-district tuition at WCC. The administration has effectively extended that subsidy to non-residents at Washtenaw County taxpayers’ expense. Many of WCC’s out-of-district students come from Livingston County. Accordingly, WCC should give Livingston County residents the opportunity to join the Washtenaw Community College District, taxes and all. But under no circumstances should the administration confer the benefits of residency to non-residents. Nor should the WCC Trustees allow this. Yet they do.

The number of associate degrees WCC confers has nose-dived, while WCC issues thousands more certificates than any other community college in the State of Michigan. WCC confers so many certificates that the US Department of Education no longer classifies WCC as a two-year institution. According to the Department of Education, WCC is more comparable to truck driving schools and beauty colleges.

When the WCC faculty held a vote of no confidence in the college’s current president, one Trustee had the temerity to characterize her as a “change agent” who was simply following the Board’s direction.

If the change the Trustees sought involved decreasing enrollment, vastly increasing the cost of WCC’s administration, artificially restraining the size of the professional faculty (thereby limiting academic program development), eliminating two-year degree programs in favor of certificates, and subsidizing students from other counties at the expense of the Washtenaw County taxpayers, then generally speaking, it seems like they’ve succeeded.

Perhaps it’s time for Washtenaw County voters to become change agents, too.

Photo Credit: Chris Beckett , via Flickr