Two-Tiered Tuition is Back

October 11, 2013

A small group of California community colleges can now experiment with charging more for high-demand courses.

Governor Jerry Brown on Thursday signed a controversial law that will allow up to six colleges to give two-tiered tuition a try with extension courses in summer and winter terms. Officials at one of those institutions -- Long Beach City College -- said the college would participate in the voluntary pilot program.

The idea is a controversial one in California, in part because of the state’s deep commitment to an open access and low tuition rates at its 112 community colleges.

Protests erupted last year at Santa Monica College when the institution's leaders considered charging a premium to add course sections. Outraged students said their wealthier peers would be able to skip long waitlists that made it impossible for many students to get into needed course sections. The college later dropped the plan.

Brice Harris, the community college system’s chancellor, has said that efforts to create two-tiered tuition are illegal. But shortly after that flare-up in Santa Monica, Das Williams, a Democrat who represents Santa Barbara in California’s State Assembly, introduced a bill to change that. Harris opposed the legislation, as have some faculty and student groups.

The California Legislature passed the bill last month. It wasn’t clear Brown would back the law. But he did.

“This seems like a reasonable experiment,” Brown said in a written statement. “Why deny these campuses the opportunity to offer students access and financial assistance to courses not otherwise available?”

Critics of two-tiered tuition say it challenges the state’s fabled Master Plan for Higher Education, which guarantees an open-door approach at community colleges.

“This measure reverses the underlying philosophy of California community colleges, which is equitable opportunity for all,” said Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

Lightman said the faculty group was disappointed with Brown’s decision, which he said is a move toward privatization of public higher education. The bill is poorly constructed, he said, and does not include adequate state oversight for the program.

The faculty group, in a written statement, called two-tiered tuition a “toll road for the economically privileged.”

Supporters of the legislation said it will help colleges expand access after years of deep budget cuts. The state’s community colleges have turned away as many as 600,000 students because of money woes.

Governing boards of the six eligible colleges can now decide to charge students for the “actual” cost of the extension courses, according to the law, including the cost of instruction, equipment and supplies. Those tuition rates will be based on those for nonresident students, which are more than three times the $46 per-credit rate that local students pay.

Colleges must be over-enrolled to participate in the program. And the extension courses cannot supplant their regular equivalents. But the courses will be an overflow option for students who can afford them.

“We think that we can do this in a way that’s fair to everyone,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College.

One reason Oakley said he backed the bill is that it requires participating colleges to funnel a third of the revenue from extension courses back as financial aid for lower-income students. Colleges are also encouraged to supplement that aid with private scholarships, which Oakley said his campus would do.

Long Beach needs to get creative to help students get the classes they need, Oakley said, and he appreciates the flexibility the law allows. But it is not a permanent fix.

“We recognize that this is an interim solution until the California economy recovers,” said Oakley.

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