Community College If You Can Pay

May 19, 2011

The California Legislature is considering a bill that critics say would create separate community college courses for the “haves” and the “have-nots” on some campuses.

The bill would allow two-year institutions to create “extension programs” offering credit courses. The courses would have to be “self-supporting, with all costs recovered,” and could not supplant existing courses funded with state dollars. But the courses could be quite similar to the regular courses — just with much higher tuition rates.

Those supporting the bill argue that, by having this ability, community colleges would be able to provide additional credit courses to meet student demand “at no additional cost to the state” — something they argue is essential given that demand at community colleges has ballooned as state funding of them has been steeply cut in recent years. Those opposed to the bill, however, argue that it would lead many community colleges to offer courses via extension that are similar to traditional courses but simply cost more, creating “a confusing two-tier structure that does not follow the colleges’ mission” of open-access education. And since the much higher tuition rates would likely limit enrollment of low-income students, critics see the community colleges creating sections for wealthy students, at a time when students of all socioeconomic groups are facing wait lists.

According to a recent bill analysis, Jack Scott, California Community Colleges chancellor, reported that “approximately 140,000 students have effectively been denied access, over 95 percent of all classes are at capacity, and an estimated 10,000-15,000 students are on wait lists for courses.” And even with Governor Jerry Brown’s revised budget proposal -- which attempts to offset a $400 million reduction for the state’s community colleges with a small tuition increase — further course reductions are likely at many institutions in the coming academic year.

The institutions sponsoring the bill — College of the Canyons and Santa Monica College — say they would offer these extension courses “in tandem” with state-funded courses “either as separate sections offered during the spring or fall semester or quarter or possibly as separate sessions during winter or summer.” They also argue that these courses would be in workforce training and degree programs “that are currently available primarily at for-profit institutions at a higher cost” than community colleges would charge.

Next fall, all California community colleges will charge $36 per credit — up $10 from last academic year. A full-time student, taking 12 credits a semester, will pay $864 for a full year. (This price could increase further if tax extensions are not approved by the legislature and voters.) Those on both sides of the bill estimate an extension credit course could cost around $150 per credit at most. At this price, a full-time student, taking 12 credits a semester, would pay $3,600 for a full year. According to the bill analysis, students in these courses “would likely be eligible for federal aid” and therefore Cal Grant awards; however, extension courses would not be eligible for the Board of Governors fee waiver, and California's community colleges have long worried that many students eligible for aid do not apply for it.

Dianne Van Hook, chancellor of College of the Canyons, said her institution offers many noncredit extension courses that it would like to transform into credit-bearing courses because of their popularity. For instance, even though College of the Canyons’ pharmacy technician program is non-credit-bearing, she said it almost always has a wait list of individuals who are seeking career training. She added that the college would like to add career/technical education courses and workforce training curriculum like its pharmacy technician program as credit-bearing options if this bill is approved.

“Right now, we can’t add [credit-bearing] programs when the state is deleting our funding,” Van Hook said. “We just want students to be able to earn credit for what they do…. We want to save our students from turning to proprietary institutions. I’m tired of proprietary institutions ripping our students off. For me, this is about adding seats for students. And some students can pay a little more. But we’re not talking about a lot here.”

Don Girard, senior director of government relations at Santa Monica College, offered a slightly different rationale.

“This is an unprecedented time for California higher education, and the cuts to community colleges have been unprecedented,” Girard said. “You have a very bad situation for students because all community colleges, to the extent that they can, are filling classes as much as they can. We’re at 102 percent of capacity here. We’re turning away tens of thousands of students.”

Girard said Santa Monica College would like to offer many of the most in-demand courses at his college, typically general education courses for transfer to a baccalaureate institution, in an extension offering. He added that the college would provide these courses during the intersessions and offer some parallel courses during the traditional semester for those willing to pay more.

Administrators at College of the Canyons and Santa Monica College have the support of the Community College League of California, an organization consisting of presidents and trustees from around the state. Scott Lay, president of the League, said he believes providing credit-bearing extension courses would not only help community college students complete faster but also help students from the California State University system who sometimes take courses at California community colleges during break also complete their degrees faster.

“If we can find a way to get wealthier students to pay a larger share of the costs so that we can save for disadvantaged students, I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” Lay said. “Still, if this is passed, I don’t think it’s going to spread all that quickly. I think a few folks will put their toes in the water and see what the response will be. I don’t think we know yet.”

On the other side of this issue are the statewide faculty groups, both union and non-union.

“The fundamental problem is that this bill represents a major change to the multiple missions of California community colleges,” said Carl Friedlander, president of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers. “It’s a social policy step back for the state. It creates a metaphorical toll lane in the California community colleges for those who can pay and, essentially, it institutes a kind of economic segregation of the system.”

Jane Patton, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, said she shares all of the same concerns about the bill potentially leading to courses in which only “wealthy students” can find access. But she also takes issue with the message that it sends to students about the responsibility of the state to fund public education.

“This issue is about changing the whole system such that it becomes funded entirely on the back of students,” Patton said. “If this bill passes, then it truly lets the state off the hook.”

Ron Norton Reel, president of the Community College Association, a constituent union of the National Education Association also representing faculty, said he is concerned about some of the vagueness in the bill regarding faculty and collective bargaining. For instance, he said he worries the bill could allow a college to add new full-time faculty who just teach these extension courses and make more money than traditional full-time faculty, thus creating a financial divide between faculty members as well as students. In addition, he said he worries that an institution might not seek faculty buy-in before adding such courses and instead force the issue on a subsequent contract renegotiation.

But if faculty and union representatives have anything to worry about at the moment, it may be the pedigree and influence of the state legislator sponsoring the bill, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Democrat from Santa Monica. Brownley is chairwoman of the Education Committee and is known as a strong and progressive supporter of public education. She even won the California Federation of Teachers Legislator of the Year award in 2010. Those who favor the bill consider her support a boon, but those who oppose it consider it a misstep from someone who has long been on their side politically.

According to an American Federation of Teachers website at which visitors are urged send letters to their legislators opposing the bill, Brownley “has been an outstanding legislator, but this bill is wrong-headed. It has enthusiastic Republican support and, because it's a Brownley bill, some Democrats are going along.”

The bill passed the Committees on Higher Education and Appropriations last month and is likely to be brought to a vote on the Assembly floor in the next few weeks.

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