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.