Community Colleges– A Change Is On the Way?

California community colleges have some of the lowest tuition fees in the country. And for decades, the community college system has taken great pride in being a “social equalizer”:  operating under several mandates, one of which is to provide inexpensive postsecondary education. But budget cuts have forced campuses to dramatically scale back what they offer. The paradigm has begun to shift. Is it possible our tuition is too low?  How should the community college system follow its other mandate: to prepare students for a career path?  And what about “non-traditional” students interested in “personal development”?

Proposals for two-tiered pricing have just begun…again.  Almost 30 years ago when the state of California’s budget was in budget crisis-mode after the passage of Proposition 13, the state’s community college system experimented with a two-tiered fee schedule:  one for students enrolled for an AA degree and the other for “non-traditional” students.

California’s 112 community colleges have been eviscerated by deep budget cuts, forcing many to turn away an estimated 200,000 this year alone. Tuition levels at the colleges, which serve 2.6 million students, will rise to $46 from $36 this summer. But even after the increase, California’s community colleges will charge less than half the national average in tuition and fees.

That could change if California State Senator Roderick D. Wright gets his way. His proposed Senate Bill 1550 would mandate that all community colleges offer” self-supporting” extension programs focused on technical education or work-force development, a narrower band than the high-demand English and math courses. Senate Bill 1550 would allow community college districts to charge students for the actual costs of the courses, including the cost of instruction, equipment and supplies, student services, instructional support, and administrative overhead (which is considerable). The debate over the legislation is also more complex. One intended objective is to create more seats at community colleges, so students won’t be lured into expensive for-profit degree programs of questionable value.

In our own backyard in Monterey County, the Board of Governors recently voted to approve a new set of rules that prevents students from repeating “activity” courses, such as dance, art, music, and physical education. The rule will begin in August. (See  July 11 Monterey Herald article, “For some community college classes, you get only one shot”)

The curriculum would provide for different levels of achievement in activity classes. In enrolling at beginning, intermediate, and advanced proficiency categories presumably the registration would not be considered a “repeat” of a course and the fee schedule would remain the same for all levels.

But the “different levels of expertise” does not resolve the budget crunch. A two-tiered tuition structure, which does address revenue shortfall, raises fundamental questions about the role and obligations of community colleges. Will the policy essentially block some of the people it is designed to benefit? How are limited taxpayers’ revenues to be allocated for students in degree-granting programs first and for “non-traditional” students second? Since 2008 California’s community college system has lost $809 million in state aid, including $564 million in the most recent budget, even as more students than ever before try to enroll. Many community colleges have reduced class offerings. Santa Monica College has cut more than 1,100 classes from its fall term. Colleges have just maxed out in terms of how many students (both traditional and leisure) they can educate and serve.

I believe we need to consider higher, more realistic and market-driven continuing education fees for those of us who are taking classes for the sheer pleasure of doing so. We should take a more expensive seat in the back of the class and let degree students sit in the front.  Without some kind of fee compromise, the portal to opportunity will not be there for future generations.


Comments (5)

  • I agree, Diana, something needs to be done. There are several alternatives to adjust the cost of Community College education: fewer teachers; fewer classes; fewer students; less construction and maintenance and a progressive tuition plan. None of them is a happy choice.
    When I was young the California education system was considered to be the best in the nation. Tuition was low in the Universities as well as the Community Colleges. I was able to receive my education for an RN degree for a few hundreds of dollars a semester. It was a great program and produced very good nurses. Little by little the charges have gone up, with a big jump when the Jarvis bill, prop 13, was passed.
    The reason the Jarvis bill passed was that bond measures were always passed by the electorate, but they always resulted in higher property taxes. Home owners were supporting education at a rate they objected to, especially with the aging population having no children, and new Californians with children arriving to take advantage of all that California had to offer. I think it might have been a bit like a class problem. People who no longer had children in the public schools being forced to pay for the younger, newer groups with children. Bond measures started to be rejected. From then on the state has had more difficulty paying for the education of its younger population.
    Recessions here and there augmented the problems. Then when the state prospered wonderfully the government mistakenly spent the largesse badly, and here we are with a recession making everything worse.
    There is no easy answer, but we are going to have to change the way education is presented and, like it or not, the wealthy are going to have to pay for the less wealthy if California is to become what it was in the fifties and sixties when my kids went to public school.
    We can rearrange the alignment of administrators and teachers some. We can forgo the new football stadiums etc., but basically there is no give in the predicament of the poor. If Californians want a premium school system, those who are able to are going to have to shell out for it.
    It seems to me that that means we have to arrange for some progressive cost management for the University and Community College tuition costs. If a student can pay more for his classes, it may be that he/she will have to do so. Socialism? I don’t think so; just common sense.

    • I especially enjoyed knowing about your own educational experience in the California public education system. The state must be able to provide an excellent educational program for current and future students, and I consider your comments very thoughtful! There are no easy answers but we have to change what is obviously a damaged system of education.

  • The solution to this ongoing educational challenge will not be easy. Something will have to be done, however. The status quo can’t continue. Thanks for your comment, Eugene!

  • Thanks for the background…Your blog presents an even balanced review of a difficult question…What is the real mission of Communty Colleges and who should pay?

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