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Valuing an associate degree

Last week, an article in US News and World Report captured the value of an associate degree. It’s somewhere between $2-$3.60 per hour, depending upon what you’re comparing it to. An associate degree will allow the holder to earn $16-$29 more per day. That’s not a whole lot when gas is $4 per gallon and a pound of ground beef is approaching $7.

I have said in the past that the value of an associate degree is precisely what makes it a hard sell. Right now, the average Uber driver makes about $30 per hour. On an annualized basis, that’s about $18,000 more per year than the average associate degree holder makes. Even a DoorDash driver makes nearly $4,000 more per year than the average 2-year grad does.

The key to maximizing the value of an associate degree lies in finishing it. At Washtenaw Community College, fewer than 30% of students who start out on a two-year degree path actually graduate. The earning potential for a certificate is even lower, if that’s the only credential a person ends up with. Pairing a certificate with a degree one already has could be a smart career move. Unfortunately, most students who earn a certificate aren’t upgrading an earlier degree. They’re scrapping together a few college credits and calling it good.

A certificate places those students squarely in the “some college, no degree” category – exactly what the State of Michigan now wants to avoid. It’s not going to be long before the state legislature changes the community college funding model to discourage certificates for students with no prior credential. That will put WCC in a bit of a bind.

Shift from Associate degree could cost WCC

Currently, WCC offers more than twice as many certificates as associate degree programs. Of the four nominally “new” credentials WCC developed this year, zero of them were degree programs. And zero of them represented new academic areas. All of them consisted of existing courses that WCC offers as part of other programs.

Right now, the State is underwriting the cost of putting many people on the path to earning 60 credits. If the state’s community college funding model shifts to favor 60-credit degree programs, WCC could leave a significant portion of its state funding on the table.

Refocusing on 60-credit programs will not be easy. After all, WCC has spent more than a decade dismantling its two-year degree programs. From an occupational/technical education perspective, WCC has lost a lot of capacity in that time. Returning to a predominantly 60-credit, degree granting institution will take significant time, money, and planning. It will also require a new vision for Washtenaw County’s future, which seems to be woefully absent.

The WCC Trustees have yet to articulate their vision for the “change” they called for a decade ago. WCC’s current condition should make the taxpayers wonder exactly what long-term plan they are following for the College. It should also make the taxpayers wonder whether our continued investment in WCC is warranted without a coherent explanation of where the Trustees are taking us.

Photo Credit: Automobile Italia , via Flickr