A California community college, Santa Monica College, has unveiled a plan to charge higher fees for some courses. Students who pay $180 per credit hour instead of the usual $36 per credit hour would be ensured a spot in certain classes – namely, those needed to complete training for a job or that are requirements so students can transfer to a four-year-institution. Officials in the California Community College chancellor’s office have already raised doubts about the legality of creating such a two-tier tuition system that would, indeed, limit access to students who are not able to pay such higher tuition rates, says the New York Times.
The higher tuition costs for some courses will be just enough to cover costs, according to Chui L. Tsang, the president of Santa Monica College. Santa Monica College is arguing that, at a time of severe budget cuts, the school has few options. California’s community college system has lost $809 million from the state since 2008; the most recent budget cuts meant a loss of $564 million. The college has had to cancel more than 1,100 classes for the fall, leaving many students shut out of many courses. Since 2009, the state’s community college system has lost about 300,000 students and many believe that the difficulty of getting into required classes is to blame. Faculty are certainly troubled by the new proposal and have found themselves accepting more students into already filled classes.
The two-tier tuition will certainly be scrutinized. Santa Monica College is an interesting test case for such a policy. It has 34,000 students and is “widely considered one of the most successful community colleges in the country, with one of the highest transfer rates to four-year colleges.” Students have often chosen to attend Santa Monica for two years and then transfer to a four-year college. But with the new tuition system, only some students may be able to do so.
A donor has already offered to give $250,000 in scholarship funds for students who cannot afford the higher tuition. So far, Santa Monica College is only offering the higher credit fees for its shorter winter term, not in the regular fall and spring semesters.
Is Education Still the “Great Equalizer”?
The dilemma Santa Monica College and its students face is shared by many, and not only community colleges. Budgetary woes have limited the courses my own small Jesuit college in Jersey City can offer and students also often find that certain courses are filled or that courses for their majors are not routinely offered. The California State University agreed last week to limit the number of students it accepts because, due to budget cuts, it cannot pay for an increase in enrollment.
What all these measures point to is a growing portrait of how higher education in the US, and public higher education in particular, is increasingly beyond the reach of many.
Indeed, the two-tier tuition plan brings into question the very mission of community colleges which have historically been seen as a “social equalizer,” as providing an affordable education for those of lower economic means, immigrants and others unable to afford four-year colleges and universities. As the New York Times succinctly puts it, “Will the policy essentially block some of the very people it hopes to benefit?” If access to education is only possible for some, can education still be considered an “equalizer” at all?
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