Updated Sept. 16 with new info from the Chancellor’s office
Community College students would have to pay as much as 300 percent more for some high-demand classes under a divisive bill on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown after passing the state Senate and Assembly this week.
Assembly Bill 955, by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, would create pilot programs at six severely overcrowded community colleges to see if students are willing to pay higher fees to take over-enrolled courses during the inter-session summer or winter terms rather than languish on a wait list to take the course during the traditional fall or spring semester.
California residents normally pay $46 a unit, with the rest subsidized by the state. Under AB 955, California students would pay the same price as out-of-state residents for impacted courses they can’t get into during regular session. Fees for out-of-state residents generally vary from $140 to $170 per unit – often with additional campus-based fees – depending on the campus, but do go higher. Pasadena City College, one of the AB 955 pilot schools, charges $193 per unit. Palo Verde Community College in Riverside County charges $404 per unit, which includes a capital outlay fee of $179, the highest nonresident tuition in the state. Most classes are three units.
“The idea behind offering summer and winter courses at a higher rate is to allow students who need one more class to pay the full price, roughly $600, so they could transfer to a university or move into the workplace sooner,” Williams wrote in an Op-Ed for the Daily Cal, the student paper at the University of California, Berkeley.
During the recession, community colleges lost about $1.5 billion in state funding and eliminated 100,000 courses to make ends meet. As a result, at least 500,000 students were effectively shut out of school because they couldn’t get into their required classes.
Even though the state budget is stabilizing, and Proposition 30, the voter-approved tax hike, is bringing in more money for education, there’s not enough cash to restore all that was lost.
“When community colleges turn away students who desire to learn, community colleges are failing at their mission,” Williams wrote. “When community colleges force students to wait one to four years to transfer because they don’t offer enough courses for all students, community colleges are failing at their mission.”
Critics of the bill, paradoxically, also invoke the mission of community colleges in urging, first legislators, and now, the governor, to reject the measure. They warn that AB 955 would create a two-tiered system of public higher education based on a student’s ability to pay.
“We have had historically free, at first, and then very low cost open and equal access, and this bill, I believe, fundamentally changes that equation,” said statewide Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris during this week’s Board of Governor’s meeting at the Lemoore campus of West Hills Community College.
A house divided
Although the bill easily passed the Assembly on Tuesday, by a vote of 57 to 14, and 26 to 12 in the Senate a day earlier, the tally showed fissures in the Democratic caucus. Democrats cast 24 of the 26 total “no” votes in both houses. In the Senate, Democrats were almost evenly split, with 14 supporting the bill and 12 opposing it.
That’s “unheard of on a Democratic bill,” said Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, chair of the Senate budget subcommittee on education and a former community college trustee in San Diego. “It shows strong concern.”
Chief among his concerns is that if the pilot programs are successful and students with means are willing to pony up more money for classes, it sends a troubling message to lawmakers considering cuts during future economic downturns.
“I fear that my successors here in Sacramento will decide that the state shouldn’t spend so much money on higher education because there would be proof that college students are willing to pay a larger percentage,” Block said.
In the extreme, he said that decrease in public support for higher education “would basically create a private education system.”
The bill has also created a split among the state’s community colleges. At least four of the six colleges in the pilot program are on record supporting the bill: Long Beach City College, College of the Canyons in north Los Angeles County, Solano Community College and Crafton Hills College in San Bernardino County.
“We’re hoping that we’ll be on the cutting edge of providing new ways of access for students,” said Alisa Moore, public relations director for the San Bernardino Community College District, which includes Crafton Hills.
The statewide chancellor’s office says one of those schools, Solano, doesn’t meet the terms of the bill and shouldn’t be on the list because it is not overcrowded and, in fact, received stabilization funding in the current 2013-14 budget due to enrollment declines.
It’s not clear where the other two colleges named in the bill – Oxnard and Pasadena City College – stand, but Jordyn Orozco, president of the Associated Students of Pasadena City College, said students are against it.
“It puts students at an unfair advantage, especially students who need financial aid,” Orozco said. Orozco added that college president Mark Rocha has told him that he’s not interested in a two-tiered education system. Several attempts to contact Rocha were not successful.
Trustees of Pasadena City College had contemplated a two-tiered fees system last year. They proposed charging about $180 per unit for courses in high demand, but backed down in the wake of student protests.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, superintendent-president of Long Beach City College, where more than 4,000 students are currently on wait lists for classes, makes no bones about his support of the AB 955. He’s posted an “AB 955 Call to Action” on the college’s website.
“AB 955 is the only option available to provide immediate, cost-effective access to students during intersessions,” Oakley wrote. “Although the courses would be at a higher fee, about $250 per unit, it would allow students to finish sooner.”
The bill has been tamped down from its original version, which would have authorized the board of any community college in the state to launch full-priced, intersession courses. But even its amended form, with just six campuses in a pilot program, doesn’t sway critics.
There are no changes that will make the bill more palatable to faculty, said Beth Smith, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, which passed a resolution opposing the bill.
She said the bill would create a situation where students at one college are paying more for the same course taught at a neighboring college for a much lower fee. “That doesn’t seem like a good option for a student,” Smith said. “That’s why it’s hard to find any amendment that works.”
The bill does place some limits on schools, however, to keep them in check. Colleges must set aside a third of the fees to provide financial aid for students who would normally qualify for a Board of Governors’ fee waiver, which waives fees for needy students. Colleges in the pilot are also prohibited from scaling back state-subsidized courses in order to supplant them with the higher cost classes.
Proposition 30, the initiative approved last November raising tax revenues for schools and community colleges, is slowly repairing some of the damage done by the recession. On Wednesday, the chancellor’s office released results of a survey completed by 95 of the state’s 112 community colleges, which showed a 5 percent increase in the number of courses offered this year over last year and a 2.5 percent increase in enrollment.
Having lost the battle in the Legislature on AB 955, opponents are now focusing on Brown, who has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto the bill. His press secretary Evan Westrup said the governor hasn’t taken a position yet on the bill and said his office won’t comment on legislation before the governor takes action.
Smith said she hasn’t heard anything to indicate how the governor is leaning, but she’s counting on him to uphold his promise to voters that if they passed Proposition 30, he would not to raise tuition at public colleges and universities.