There was a time when attending a California Community College was free. Anyone seeking to either hone in on new skills or pursue an academic track toward eventual professional success could register at a place like Santa Monica College (SMC) and hopefully be on their respective way.
Yet with a bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last week, community college students could be paying as much as $200 per unit for some courses.
While the economic realities of the past three to four decades had translated into students now having to pay registration fees and tuitions at community colleges across the state, SMC toyed with the idea a little more than 18 months ago to introduce a two-tiered fee system. Most courses would still be offered at the going State-subsidized rate of $46 per unit. However, select students would pay about four times more: $180 per unit.
The voluntary program would only apply to select courses in accounting, astronomy, English composition, and psychology, among others. Most of the 700-plus courses offered would be subject to the State-subsidized tuition rate, but the SMC proposal caused uproar at the two-year college campus.
A student rally against the proposal after a Board of Trustees meeting on April 3, 2012, turned nasty when some protesters were hospitalized after being pepper-sprayed by law enforcement.
On April 6, 2012, an emergency meeting of the SMC Board of Trustees convened and board members unanimously voted to put off the controversial tuition plan.
While the SMC two-tier tuition plan was dead on arrival, a similar concept was approved in Sacramento.
Similar to what SMC proposed at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, some community colleges in California will have “critical classes” offered at $200 per unit and other remain at $46 per unit.
The “critical classes” would be prerequisite courses students need to graduate or transfer to a four-year university or college.
SMC was not among the community colleges included under the State’s attempt at a two-tier tuition plan. Under the bill signed by Brown, Sacramento would experiment with the two-tier tuition plan at select campuses before determining to expand the plan system wide.
If State officials at the end of the trial run deem the two-tier tuition plan successful, it could be in effect at SMC in four years.
In a statement released after the signing of AB 955 – the bill behind the two-tier tuition plan – Brown said the hiked prices for key classes could be a good thing.
“This seems like a reasonable experiment,” Brown stated. “Why deny these campuses the opportunity to offer students access and financial assistance to courses not otherwise available.”
Brice Harris, who serves as Chancellor of California’s community college system, was a key opponent of the two-tier tuition plan.
Harris penned an open letter in March, where he expressed “grave concerns” of a two-tier tuition policy.
“California has long been the envy of community colleges across the country for sustaining a policy of affordable access to public higher education. 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,” Harris wrote.
“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,” he continued.
Assembly member Das G. Williams (D- Santa Barbara) introduced AB 955. According to news reports, Williams had originally intended the two-tier tuition plan be applied to all 112 community colleges in the State.
However, only a select few campuses will feature the two-tier tuition plan as of next summer, including College of the Canyons, Crafton Hills College, Long Beach City College, Pasadena City College, and Solano Community College.
According to SMC’s publication The Corsair, the two-tier tuition trial run would be in effect through Jan. 1, 2014. Once the trial run ends, all community college districts could reportedly opt into the two-tier tuition plan.
Since 2008, more than $800 million – or 12 percent – of funding has been cut from the community college system. The funding cuts have translated, the Chancellor’s office pointed out, into a 15 percent reduction in courses offered at community colleges statewide. Further, since 2009, community college enrollment has dropped by about 300,000 across the board.