There may be limits to how far differential tuition can go in higher education.
Many colleges have begun charging more for high-cost courses and academic programs, like engineering and health sciences. While sometimes controversial, differential rates are on the books at more than half of flagship public universities, a recent survey  found.
But as Santa Monica College has discovered, creating a two-tiered pricing system for the same popular general education courses is a far tougher pill to swallow.
College trustees shelved the proposal on Friday, after a week that included the pepper-spraying  of student protesters and a resulting media frenzy. The plan would have created a private foundation to offer 50 high-demand courses, in subjects like math and English, to students who were unable to get into over-enrolled classes. The foundation-run courses were to cost roughly four times more than state-subsidized but otherwise identical offerings, at $180 per unit compared to $46.
California’s 112 community colleges have serious money problems, with the system having had its budget slashed by $809 million, or 12 percent, over three years. The colleges are wrestling with questions  about their open-access mission and will turn away an estimated 200,000 students this year.
Even so, while many in the state probably approve of new ideas about how to serve more students, the Santa Monica solution touched a nerve, big time. People don’t like the optics of entering students, many of whom are lower-income, having to pony up $540 for English 1A while their peers who were fortunate enough to register for the course pay $138.
The fracas may have a chilling effect on creative financing at California's community colleges, observers said. And that might not be such a bad thing, because something as important and controversial as differential tuition should be addressed at the statewide level, said Christopher Cabaldon, West Sacramento’s mayor and a former community college administrator.
“That really is a state policy decision,” he said.
The Santa Monica plan may have never had a chance anyway, as system leaders had said it would have run afoul of state laws. Legislation to smooth the path for differential tuition in California was dropped last year, and a new, similar bill  has not moved.
The basic idea behind the failed push is not going away, though. Colleges around the country are experimenting with differential rates, including several community colleges . Those strategies, however, differ from the Santa Monica plan in key ways -- they either charge more for courses that are expensive to teach or create a higher tuition rate for students who enroll in programs outside of an institution’s core offerings.
Few, if any, other colleges have tried something beyond those two approaches, which hinge on different prices for fundamentally different academic programs or types of students and are much more insulated from complaints about equity or student access.
Nursing and engineering courses often require expensive equipment and small class sizes. So those two majors, along with business programs, are the most likely to come with extra fees or price hikes, according to research from the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.
Online programs can also be pricier offerings, and some have been cash cows for colleges. And four-year public colleges often charge different tuition levels for students who attend extension campuses and were not admitted to the central institution. The California State University System has mulled such an approach, California Watch  reported.
In some cases, colleges can have differential tuition based on year of enrollment, according to results from a survey  by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, with upper-level students being charged more.
A shift in pricing at Bristol Community College, located in Massachusetts, is an example of the evolving view of what sort of differential pricing is fair to students.
The college's eHealth program features online and hybrid degree and certificate tracks. Students enrolled in eHealth are charged $246 per credit, compared to $166 per credit for all other programs, said Sally Chapman Cameron, a spokeswoman for the college.
But Bristol’s trustees last month voted to end that differential pricing, out of concern that students were paying different rates for the same credentials. Under the new structure, which begins in July, eHealth's tuition and fees will be reduced to $171 per credit, said Cameron, the same new standard rate across the college.
Differential tuition isn’t dead at Bristol, however. The trustees approved an additional $50 fee for high-cost programs, beginning with nursing and dental hygiene.
The college is in the middle of the pack for tuition among Massachusetts community colleges, Cameron said. But it “continues its unhappy position” near the bottom of the list for state appropriations. And even with the extra fee, nursing and dental hygiene students “still don’t pay the full costs, by any stretch,” that the college incurs to offer the programs.
Differential pricing is trickier for community colleges, because it hits at their goal of providing open, and equal, access for all students.
Besides Bristol, several other community colleges have had success with charging different rates . Pima Community College, a large institution in Arizona, this spring introduced differential tuition for high-cost offerings like veterinary technology and dental hygiene. The college studied the cost of delivery for disciplines over four years, according to college officials. To be picked for differential rates, which are 30 or 40 percent higher than standard tuition, courses needed to exceed the median cost for at least two consecutive years.
But not all courses within an academic program are priced higher, college officials said. For example, a nursing student would continue to pay normal rates for a writing course.
The college, which has struggled to meet student demand after being hit with state budget cuts, expects the differential rates to yield an additional $200,000 in tuition revenue.
Aims Community College, located in Colorado, has tried a similar approach. The pricing structure at Aims is based on cost of delivery, with higher tuition for programs like surgical technology and aviation.
The American Association of Community Colleges takes no position on differential tuition, which the association considers an institution-level decision.
“We’d never get involved in tuition-setting policies,” said David Baime, the association's vice president for government relations.
Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, said he “strongly opposes” the Santa Monica approach.
“Such a financing model flies in the face of the open door history and philosophy of community colleges,” he said via e-mail. “And it will definitely not create a large-scale high-wage work force in high demand areas our society needs over the next two decades.”
The high profile of the debate at Santa Monica has no doubt caught the attention of community college leaders, many of whom are also wrestling with increased student demand and stagnant state support. But don’t bet on others to follow the college's example.
“It has to be an outlier,” Baime said.
Ronald G. Ehrenberg agreed. The director of Cornell's Higher Education Research Institute, Ehrenberg said community colleges were likely to go the route many four-year colleges take, which is typically to add an extra fee for high-cost majors. The University of Kentucky, for example, charges a fee of $460 per semester for nursing, a 10.7 percent increase over the in-state semester tuition of $4,305, the survey  found.
Santa Monica’s administration had initially considered more targeted differential tuition plans, discussing those ideas with lawmakers at least two years ago, Cabaldon said. That changed, however, and the college got a controversy that landed on the front page  of the print version of The New York Times.
The key for differential tuition, Cabaldon said, is making a strong case that the extra fee is applied fairly to a high-cost program or specific category of student.
“You do have to have a hard line,” he said. “Otherwise all the critics are right.”