Santa Monica College’s Two-Tier Trap

At Santa Monica College, the community college known as a feeder school for UCLA, students are regularly turned away from core academic courses that are oversubscribed — but that they need if they hope to take higher-level classes, graduate or transfer to a four-year school. As a result of budget cuts, almost every seat is taken in almost every class.

And the same holds true for community colleges throughout the state. One of California's most democratic ideals — an affordable, high-quality public education available to all who need it — is crumbling.

So it's perfectly understandable why Santa Monica College officials, scrambling to make ends meet, have proposed increasing fees for certain in-demand classes to about $600 to $800 per course, or a little more than four times the standard price. The courses would pay their own way, allowing the college to accommodate more students.

Understandable, but wrong. Creating a two-tier system of fees sets a serious precedent that could change the basic nature of the community college system. Once a handful of courses pay for themselves, the temptation to add more would be hard to resist, and the temptation for other campuses to join in would be overwhelming. College fees are set by the Legislature and overseen by the systemwide chancellor's office in Sacramento. A single campus should not have the authority — and it's doubtful it does — to set the price for a community college education.

Santa Monica College officials say that Cal Grants and private donations to a special fund will cover the added cost for low-income students, so that this would not become an option only for the affluent. But Cal Grants, which provide financial aid to low- and moderate-income California families, are based on the type of college the students attend. Students at community colleges receive a certain stipend, University of California students another, and so forth. There are some supplemental funds students can apply for, but it's not clear that Cal Grants would provide them for this purpose. The program can't cover students' expenses if every community college in the state starts quadrupling the price of its most popular classes. If private donors step forward, Santa Monica College should use their money to fund classes at the regular price.

A new policy recently adopted by the statewide community college system should help. Students who have passed more than their share of courses to graduate or transfer would have the lowest priority for class registration, giving first crack to students who need those classes. But individual campuses shouldn't be jacking up prices unilaterally.

LA TIMES

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