The state has wrestled for years with how to overcome a financially-driven bottleneck in community colleges that makes it harder for students to get the courses they need to graduate or transfer to four-year schools. Budget cuts have led to higher fees and reduced course offerings, inconveniencing or derailing the plans of students who need the classes.
On Thursday, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that addresses the problem by implementing a two-tier pricing program at selected schools during summer and winter terms, allowing students who have the cash to pay extra for “high demand” classes. If you have the money, you can get through the school quicker and easier. And the schools make a few dollars, too.
The regular per-unit cost of $46 will be more than quadrupled to $200 for critical classes—prerequisites to advance or those needed to graduate—that students have been fighting their way into the past few years.
The controversial pilot program was bitterly opposed by Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, as well as many students and faculty, who regard it as a reversal of the schools’ historical role of providing educational opportunities to the less advantaged by at least maintaining a level field for educational offerings.
When Santa Monica College announced in March 2012 that it would adopt a two-tier fee structure, it was met by a hailstorm of derision from students and expressions of concern from educators. The college reversed course a month later.
In his bill signing message (pdf), Governor Brown wrote, “This seems like a reasonable experiment,” and then asked, “Why deny these campuses the opportunity to offer students access and financial assistance to courses not otherwise available?”
In an open letter (pdf) written seven months ago, Harris provided an answer: “The California community colleges have been a system that promised equal access opportunity to everyone regardless of educational, economical or family background, and it backed up that promise with low fees and plentiful offerings. . . . I strongly believe that charging different students different fees depending on demand, ability to pay or program of interest would ultimately be devastating to open access and has the potential to undermine a system that has been the gateway to a better life for all Californians regardless of their background.”
California community colleges have seen their annual budgets whacked $809 million and course offerings drop 25% since 2008. Required classes that were once offered every semester are more likely now to only be offered once a year. A survey of 78 schools found almost half a million students were on waiting lists for classes.
In addition to delaying, and sometimes curtailing, student graduation, the dire situation has forced students to attend more than one community college at a time in search of needed classes. The number of students forced to attend more than one school more than doubled from 2.2% in 1992 to 5.2% in 2011, placing an additional financial burden on people who can ill afford the added expense of gasoline, multiple trips on mass transit or the impact on employment.
The original intent of AB 955’s author, Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), was that all 112 community college districts adopt the two-tiered system. Instead, only a handful of schools will participate in the voluntary program. The high-priced classes most likely can be found next July at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, Long Beach City College, Oxnard College, Pasadena City College and Solano Community College in Fairfield.