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Tuition increases, student enrollment and poverty

MLive recently had an interesting article on the impact of poverty on COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County. I’ve been looking at how tuition increases impact students at WCC recently. I couldn’t help but think back to the March 12, 2019 WCC Board of Trustees retreat, and this particular exchange regarding tuition increases. The Trustees are discussing the potential impact of a $10 per-credit-hour fee on the students. Trustees Hatcher and DeVarti understand that a 10% increase will have a substantial impact on some students. Trustee Landau refuses to acknowledge that some people just don’t have $10 per credit hour.

Richard Landau: Yeah, but I mean, we’re also – I do think that you need to look at the comparables here, you know, in terms of – I mean we do – fortunately have Eastern and University of Michigan and Schoolcraft, and you know, all of our comparables within, you know a 30-mile radius that – you know – I think we still compare pretty darned favorably to – so yeah, you can look at this as a percentage increase, but the fact of the matter is, where’s – where else are they going to go? I mean, where are we going to lose them to?”

Ruth Hatcher: Jobs.

David DeVarti: What we are going to lose are the people who can’t afford – who have difficulty affording tuition at the level we are charging.

Richard Landau: “Well I mean, I just don’t know that this is going to be a bank – break-the-bank kind of proposition.

What happens when tuition increases

I wanted to know if a $10-per-credit-hour fee was a “break-the-bank kind of proposition.” So, I looked at the enrollment in the years after the WCC Trustees raised tuition. Fortunately, educational institutions must report reams of data to the Department of Education every year. Some of the information they have to report includes enrollment data by gender, race and ethnicity.

Using WCC’s data between 2003 and 2018, it’s easy to see what happens to enrollment when the Trustees raise tuition.

For the 2002-03 academic year, the WCC Trustees raised tuition by $1 per credit hour. Enrollment across all demographic groups rose, except for non-resident alien females. The following year, the Trustees raised tuition by $6 per credit hour. WCC’s 12-month unduplicated enrollment fell from 28,628 to 20,409.

When tuition increases by 11.1% in a good economy

In 2004, Michigan was not in a recession, so people were not under intense pressure to train or re-train for jobs. (WCC was in the planning stages for the Health and Fitness Center, though.) When the WCC Trustees raised tuition by 11.1% in one year, people chose not to attend classes. WCC’s enrollment dropped by 28.7%. The drop affected students of both genders and in every demographic group. Except for non-resident aliens, enrollment by female students in every demographic group dropped farther than male enrollment. African American enrollment (both male and female) dropped less than it did among other demographic groups.

When tuition increases by 9.6% in a weak economy

In 2010-11, the WCC Trustees raised tuition by $7 per credit hour (9.6%). This time, the county was coming out of recession, so there was more pressure to train, re-train and upgrade existing skills. (And WCC was on a big building spree.) Again, the 12-month enrollment dropped, this time by just 2.5%. Except for Hawaiian/Pacific Islander males, and students of two or more races, every other demographic group lost enrollment in both genders. Female enrollment in all other demographic groups except among White and American Indian students dropped more than male enrollment did. African American enrollment (both male and female) dropped less than it did among other demographic groups.

To me, this says WCC students are sensitive to large year-over-year increases in tuition. When the tuition rises sharply in a positive economy, students will abandon school for the workforce, just as Trustee Hatcher predicted. When tuition rises sharply in a fair or poor economy, minority students are less likely to enroll or remain enrolled. A fair-to-poor economy may force some students (white females and African Americans) to remain enrolled, despite a substantial increase in tuition. These students may bear the brunt of extraordinary tuition increases to improve their job prospects or to complete a university transfer plan.

Tuition increases hurt students. The larger the increase is, the more likely people are to avoid enrolling. Large increases are, in fact, a “break the bank kind of proposition” for most students.

What does a tuition increase do to the community

So, what does this have to do with COVID-19 in Ypsilanti? Poverty is a big determinant of the COVID-19 caseload in Washtenaw County. Clusters and outbreaks occur more commonly in high-poverty areas, and the impacts of the disease are more profound.

Education is one of the long-term strategies to combat poverty. But some WCC Trustees have convinced themselves that because $10 per credit hour would not break their personal bank, it would not break anyone’s bank.

The WCC Trustees must stop looking at the College through the lens of their own personal experience, and start looking at it from the perspective of those for whom WCC was actually intended to help.

For an Administration that is so convinced that enrollment will be dropping for the foreseeable future, raising the cost of attendance by 10% or more – especially to pay for unnecessary new construction – is a really good way to repel prospective and current students. It’s also a great way to ensure that those in poverty in Washtenaw County stay that way.

We need more Trustees who understand that the best way to attract and serve students is to keep the cost of attendance as low as possible. The WCC Trustees cannot simply raise tuition each time they encounter revenue pressures. If maintaining enrollment is a priority, the Trustees must direct the Administration to reduce expenses, streamline operations and eliminate new construction before considering an increase in the cost of attendance.

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

Photo Credit: Images Money, via Flickr