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Why Gen Z can’t afford to go to community college

For the last few days, I have been writing about the challenges that Gen Z adults face after graduation from high school. The majority of parents haven’t set aside any savings to pay for college. A four-year degree is largely too expensive for a high school graduate to afford. And a community college education comes with its own problems.

Gen Z views community college as equally unaffordable – just not in the same way that university tuition is. I say that community college is unaffordable not because students can’t afford the tuition. Rather, it’s unaffordable because it doesn’t produce any significant bump in income for most programs.

In case you haven’t already arrived at this conclusion, that’s a big problem. Degree or no degree, many young adults can’t afford to live in Washtenaw County right now. Between the lack of housing options, low wages, and the lack of employment opportunities here, there is very little incentive for the area’s educated young adults to remain.

That raises an existential question about Washtenaw Community College. If – as WCC reports – the average graduate makes $36,000 per year, and that is $11,000 less than the living wage for an individual in Washtenaw County, who are we educating at WCC and for what? If WCC’s graduates can only earn an income that is one-third less than they need to live in Washtenaw County, why operate WCC at all?

Why are we super-funding WCC if its graduates can’t afford to live here? Where is the commitment on the part of the Administration to raise wages for its graduates by developing, supporting, and promoting programs that lead to high-wage, high demand jobs?


Under no circumstances should WCC ever prepare students for a job that produces sub-standard wages. That’s true regardless of the credit status of the program.

Community college should commit to raising income standards for its programs

And where is the direction from the Board of Trustees to eliminate programs that trap graduates in poverty? No person who attends WCC should be left with an educational experience that does not raise their wages high enough to live and work in Washtenaw County. Where is the commitment from the Board of Trustees to deliver these programs that train for high-wage, high demand jobs?

I have heard rumors that the Administration is quietly attempting to shelve as many certificate programs as possible ahead of the July 1, 2024 implementation of the Department of Labor “Gainful Employment” rules.

But our community college administration and our elected Trustees should not have to be ordered by the Department of Education to produce programs that enable graduates to reap basic economic benefits of a post-secondary education.

Nor should our heavily funded community college have a problem coming up with the funding to support the State of Michigan’s strategy to increase the number of individuals with at least 60 college credits. Short-term certificate programs simply do not enable people to reach this goal. Employers don’t know how to judge the value of a certificate, and the programs don’t typically provide enough substance to deliver positive economic benefit to either employers or employees.

July 1 can’t get here fast enough. It is time to weed out the economic liabilities in the WCC catalog and replace them with programs that will enable people to earn enough to live in Washtenaw County.

Photo Credit: Brian Talbot , via Flickr