Depending on your perspective, Santa Monica College’s plan to charge students several times the normal fee to add sections to oversubscribed classes is either a brilliant idea to cope with its shrinking revenues, or a misguided strategy making it more difficult for low-income students to reach their academic goals.
Given the depth of the community colleges’ financial woes, and the fact that there are 112 of them around the state, it is surprising that more of these revenue generating ideas have not surfaced. But the Santa Monica plan is now being discussed across the system, as every college struggles to reconcile increasing demand with shrinking resources.
“To some, it offers increased access,” said Paul Feist, a spokesman for the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office, referring to the Santa Monica plan. “Others will argue that this is a move to privatizing public colleges. We recognize that this debate is going on.”
College officials said yesterday some financial support would be available to help offset fees for the neediest students. In fact, publicity around the plan has already triggered support to do just that. Yesterday the college received a donation of $250,000 to cover the fees for low income students from Daniel Greenberg and his wife Susan Steinhauser. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Electro Rent, and among other volunteer positions is a trustee of the National Public Radio Foundation.
The interest that the plan has triggered is reminiscent of San Francisco City College Chancellor Don Griffin’s idea in 2009 to sell naming rights of college courses for $6,000 a course.
When the City College’s Board of Trustees heard of the plan, they nixed it.
Santa Monica officials say they have no choice but to come up with a creative plan to meet student needs and stay solvent. Since the 2008-09 school year, the college has had to cut the number of courses its offers from 7,434 to 6,288 this year, a drop of 15 percent. If voters fail to approve a tax initiative this November, that figure will jump to 23 percent. Currently the college is serving 500 full-time equivalent students without receiving any support from the state to do so, officials say.
“We either have to do nothing, which is not an option, or try something to help students who are literally being turned away by the hundreds of thousands around the state, at just the time when the demand is highest,” said college spokesman Bruce Smith.
The plan is to charge a higher fee for students who wish to take the most popular classes and whose sections are oversubscribed. Smith said that if, for example, 10 sections of English 1 are filled, “and 15 are needed, that is what we will go with.” He noted that the extra fee classes would only be offered during the college’s shorter six week long winter and summer sessions, not during its regular fall and spring semesters.
The plan would increase “total seats available, while simultaneously easing the intensity of competition for state-funded seats,” a report to the board explained. “It would provide a pathway to degrees, certificates, transfer, and economic opportunity.”
Under the plan approved by the college’s board of trustees last week, a three unit course would cost between $500 and $600, compared to the full price of $138 for a regular three unit course this fall. (Currently fees run $36 per unit, which will jump to $46 per unit for a regular class. For a fee schedule, see this chart.)
Even at the $200 per unit price, Smith said, it would still be a relative bargain compared to the $285 per unit cost at a California State University campus, let alone the cost of attending a UC campus — and definitely less than private for-profit colleges that students are turning to in increasing numbers.
Smith said the two tier plan is simply an extension of what the college has been doing when it has charged fees over the past two years to non-California resident students trying to get courses that have been oversubscribed — for a $295 per unit price.
At least some student leaders don’t like the idea. “It’s creating a two-tiered system of wealthier students who can afford classes and struggling working-class and low-income students competing for the scraps of what’s left; it’s definitely a move in the wrong direction,” student government president Harrison Wills told the Los Angeles Times before Greenberg’s scholarship donation was announced.
There is still some disagreement over whether the California Education Code would allow the two tier arrangement being proposed. The Santa Monica College administration says its lawyers advise that their plan is permitted. The Community College Chancellor’s Office in Sacramento is not so sure, and is studying the matter.
Under the community college’s decentralized system, it is not clear whether the chancellor’s office would have the right to prevent implementation of the plan, should their respective lawyers come to a different conclusion.
“Our impression is that the education code does not allow that,” said Feist of the Chancellor’s Office. But, he said, “we are still gathering information.”