New law allows experiment with higher tuition for in-demand courses at community colleges

October 10, 2013
Community college students would pay up to three times more for impacted courses under a pilot program approved by the governor. Credit: SMBCollege

Community college students would pay up to three times more for impacted courses under a pilot program approved by the governor. Credit: SMBCollege

Despite opposition from the community college Academic Senate and some concerns from the chancellor’s office, Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed a bill allowing a few community colleges to charge more for high-demand courses.

Assembly Bill 955, by Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), creates a pilot program at up to six community college campuses allowing them to offer over-enrolled classes during summer or winter intercession at much higher fees. Instead of the $46 per class unit that most California residents pay, students would pay anywhere from $140 to $404 a unit – the rates charged to students who aren’t California residents; the out-of-state fees vary by campus. Course held during the mid-winter and summer sessions vary in length from four-to-eight weeks depending on the campus, but meet for several hours at a time or every day in order to give students the same amount of units as courses held during the regular semesters.

Williams said the bill is all about access to courses, which was cut severely during the recession when community college had to eliminate classes to balance their budgets. About 600,000 students were turned away from community colleges between 2008-09 and 2011-12 because of lack of access to courses, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

They were basically told, “You’re in, but sorry, you can’t get any of the courses you need to transfer or get a degree,” Williams said Thursday.

What’s more, he said, it’s costing students thousands of dollars a year to prolong their education, because they don’t have the degree they need

Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara

to get a decent paying job, but they still have to meet their living expenses. Students should be able to make the choice between taking “expensive courses that cost a few hundred more, instead of paying thousands of dollars,” Williams said.

Brown agreed. In a written statement accompanying his signature, Brown said that allowing a handful of community colleges an option of offering high demand courses during the summer and winter sessions “seems like a reasonable experiment.”

The bill had sparked online petitions, opposition from a number of community college organizations and even split Democrats in the state Legislature, as EdSource Today reported last month. One of the Democratic lawmakers who opposed it, Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), said he was concerned that it might send a message to his colleagues that they don’t have beef up funding for community colleges “because there would be proof that college students are willing to pay a larger percentage.”

The Community College Chancellors office didn’t take a formal stand on AB 955, but at a Board of Governor’s meeting last month, Chancellor Brice Harris said, “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.”

The chancellor had no statement Thursday after the governor signed the bill.

The law allows pilot programs to be created at Pasadena City College, Oxnard College, Long Beach City College, Solano College, College of the Canyons in Valencia, and Crafton Hills in San Bernardino County. However, it’s not clear that all six colleges will participate.

“Long Beach is the only college eligible and willing at this point to participate. College of the Canyons and Solano are ineligible, Pasadena and Oxnard have said they won’t participate, and Crafton Hills want to consult with their students and faculty before making a decision,” said Community College Vice Chancellor for Communications Paul Feist in an email.

Oxnard College and Pasadena City College had announced even before the bill was signed that they would not take part in the pilot program. “Two-tier tuition will not happen at (Pasadena City College) under any circumstances,” college president Mark Rocha said in a written statement on Sept. 18.

Williams said Solano College and College of the Canyons told him they want to participate, but will need until next summer to meet the qualifications. Campuses must have been at enrollment capacity for the preceding two years in order the qualify for the pilot, and they must have a financial aid program in place for low-income students who want to take the more expensive classes. The higher prices can only be charged for courses that lead to degrees, certificates or transfer to a four-year college.

Williams said he understands that the program is unpopular, but said it’s one option that should be available for students.

“My issue is that if no one has a better idea to provide access to students, then this is better than the status quo, and we would be doing a disservice to students not to give them something.”

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