Long Beach City College is going it alone in the first test of a new state law that lets community colleges charge students more money—a lot more money—for required classes that are much in demand.
The law, passed last October, allowed six colleges to offer tiered pricing during winter and summer semesters through 2018 as part of a pilot program, but only one school signed up. Other school administrators were tempted. But opposition from students, educators and Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris tempered their immediate enthusiasm.
Supporters argue that the program adds classes that essentially pay for themselves without state funding, allowing more kids to graduate faster. Detractors see it as a backdoor effort to reduce government’s commitment to helping provide higher education to lower-income people.
The pilot program is borne of harsh economic times. Students can’t get classes because state budget cuts have decimated the schools. California 112 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.
To alleviate the bottleneck, Long Beach opened additional, critical classes that were restricted to those students who could afford to pay up to four times the usual fee with some help from the state. Governor Jerry Brown, in his bill signing message (pdf), asked, “Why deny these campuses the opportunity to offer students access and financial assistance to courses not otherwise available?”
Chancellor Brice addressed that question seven months earlier an open letter (pdf):
“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.”
Long Beach City College President Eloy Ortiz Oakley may not have read that letter. The Los Angeles Times wrote that he expressed surprise at the outrage over the offerings and said they gave students more choices.
At least, some of them. Students didn’t get pepper-sprayed protesting the addition of more class choices when Santa Monica College considered a similar program the year before. They were protesting the state reducing their opportunities and choices in life. Enrollment at California community colleges is at a 20-year low.
As Jeffrey Kellogg, president of the Long Beach Community College District board told the Orange County Register, “If the state of California gave us the money we need to address this demand, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”