Monday, April 09, 2012

Santa Monica College's Tuition Plan Was Ill Conceived

by Ariel Carmona Jr


The privatization of higher education, at least at the community college level in the state of California has been averted - at least for the time being.

While a highly publicized incident at Santa Monica College recently, a protest which resulted in the pepper spraying of students, got most of the press, somewhat lost in the media storm was the underlying message: That students fear institutionalized privatization of state funded schools.

Last week the board of trustees at SMCC held off on its controversial plan to institute a two-tier fee structure for high-demand courses beginning in summer session 2012.

Outgoing California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott praised the trustees and college president Chui L. Tsang’s decision saying in a press release, “Although I disagreed with this proposal, I cannot fault college leaders for searching for new approaches to serve students hungry for the opportunity to receive a college education. Tragically, we as a state have failed to properly fund community colleges, and our economy will suffer as a result.”

Talk about understatement of the year. However, despite the Chancellor’s approving remarks, this is not the first state which has tried something like this, and it will probably not be the last time an alternative to the state’s dwindling educational resources will be sought. This was not a great solution and SMCC made the right call on putting a halt to its plan.

The initiative sought to have a nonprofit foundation offer some high-demand core classes such as math and English at a higher price during the summer and winter sessions alongside the same state-funded courses. The California Community Colleges system-wide fees, as established by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature, will increase to $46 per unit this summer.

The Santa Monica two-tier plan would have offered a 3-unit class such as English 1A at the state funded amount of $138 while concurrently offering it at $540 as a student-subsidized price range, approximately four times the price.

Similar plans already occur at the Cal State University Level and at University of California Schools. Yet, there is one big difference, as pointed out by several critics of the plan, including a recent editorial which ran in the Modesto Bee: Community Colleges are supposed to offer equal access to all students, and a two-tiered plan would jeopardize this model, effectively making the community colleges less accessible to financially disadvantaged students.

While attending summer session at Cal Poly Pomona two years ago, I had to make a personal decision. The university had cut its state funded summer program in response to deep cuts in education and projected cuts for the following year, but still offered a limited amount of classes to students willing to pay to take them through the colllege’s extended university program.

I wanted to graduate, so I sacrificed a summer of frolic and fun, took the $800 I saved the previous spring, and instead of taking a trip, I took a couple of elective courses. I am sure that I was not the only one making these type of decisions, but I was fortunate to get the classes, others have not been as lucky.

State cuts have forced community college campuses to reduce course offerings by approximately 15 percent at a time when more students than ever are seeking admission.

Possible legal challenges and a possible violation of the California Educational Code may have put a stake through the heart of this recent proposal, but it seems unlikely we have heard the last of these types of “creative” solutions to a difficult budget crisis. It might be up to the voters in the upcoming November election to effectuate the type of tax policy revisions needed for real meaningful and equitable reform.