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WCC Trustees Should Focus on Degree Programs

Yesterday, I looked at how much students pay to attend WCC, and what they get in return from the Trustees. Between 2015 and 2020, WCC students paid more than $206M in tuition and fees. Besides a little respect from the Trustees, WCC students should be getting something substantial from the College’s degree programs.

One item I pointed out was the student loan default rate. 2016 is the most current year for which data are available. For the students who left WCC in 2016 and who had student loan debts, nearly 1 in 5 of them have defaulted on their student loans. For me, this figure raises some serious questions about the employability of some WCC graduates. Graduates with valuable, marketable degrees should be employable enough to avoid defaulting on their student loans.

The US Department of Education dropped the reporting requirement for “gainful employment” of graduates in 2019. Using data collected and disclosed from 2013-2018, gainful employment among WCC graduates peaked in 2015-16. In that year, 57% of its graduates reported being employed full-time following graduation. In 2016-17, the full time employment rate dropped to 51%, and in 2017-18, the last year for which data are publicly available, the figure dropped again to 49%.

The “gainful employment” data are a minefield, so prospective students who might be otherwise find themselves persuaded by WCC’s “Employed” gag should tread carefully. Colleges and universities have a notoriously hard time getting alumni to respond to post-graduation surveys. A better way to see what’s happening is to look at WCC’s graduation data, as reported to the State of Michigan.

What do students get from WCC’s Degree Programs?

In 2017-18, the last year for which gainful employment data were reported, WCC issued 3,458 credentials – which by itself sounds fantastic. The problem with this number is that the majority of these “credentials” are certificates that take less than one year to complete. They’re not actual degrees.

In 2017-18, all 28 Michigan community colleges combined issued 5,229 one-year certificates. Of those, WCC issued 42% of them (2,193). At the other end of the spectrum, all 28 Michigan community colleges combined awarded 22,085 Associate Degrees. Of those, WCC granted just 5.6% of them.

In comparison, Macomb Community College issued just 55 one-year certificates. During the same period, it granted nearly 2,000 Associate Degrees. Oakland Community College awarded 250 certificates and 2,003 Associate Degrees.

No other Michigan community college issues one-year certificates in the volume that WCC does. Typically, community colleges issue more Associate Degrees than any other type of award. For most community colleges, a certificate program is an enhancement to an existing degree program, not a replacement for one.

Of the 2,193 certificates WCC issued in 2017-18, 1,319 (60%) were issued to women. Among students who identified as Black or African American, 67.6% earned short-term certificates instead of more lucrative two-year degrees. Female student comprised 59% of the graduates in that class. 35% of them earned Associate Degrees, while the remainder earned short-term certificates.

Completing a degree program should produce long-term benefits

If you look at the graduation data, you’ll find that WCC issues more certificates to women and minorities. While this approach inflates the “graduation” numbers nicely, it doesn’t serve the people who are most marginalized in today’s society.

Pushing certificate programs (especially in occupational areas) instead of more valuable Associate Degree programs may consign certificate-holders to lower-wage jobs with less flexibility and upward mobility over time. Less education statistically means lower earnings. Lower earnings translate into a host of disadvantages throughout a person’s career and produce lower retirement earnings and Social Security benefits in retirement.

It would be nice if the WCC Trustees prioritized solid educational programming that resulted in more degree-holders and higher wage-earners in Washtenaw County. Instead, the Trustees encourage the Administration to push less marketable, less valuable certificates that game the institution’s graduation metrics, but offer little else.

Photo Credit: Michael Long, via Flickr