California community colleges will not find an ally in their new system chancellor, Brice Harris, if they try to cope with crushing student demand by raising tuition for certain programs or courses.
In an open letter  to leaders of the system’s 112 colleges, Harris last month made clear that he is opposed to attempts at charging “differential tuition.” That includes the controversial two-tiered pricing structure that Santa Monica College proposed  last year or the online bachelor’s track Coastline Community College has been developing  with three public universities in other states.
Harris said that such efforts, even if proposed for seemingly good reasons, go against California law  and the deep commitment to affordable, open access at its community colleges.
“Suggestions such as moving the system to outcomes-based funding, charging differential fee by program and increasing fees per unit to leverage more federal financial aid, have increased in frequency and intensity,” he wrote. “I strongly believe that charging different students different fees depending on demand, ability to pay or program of interest would ultimately be devastating to open access and has the potential to undermine a system that has been the gateway to a better life for all Californians regardless of their background.”
However, Harris also said he supports incremental tuition increases.
The Santa Monica College proposal set off a fiery backlash last spring, capped by the pepper-spraying  of student protesters. The college’s leaders wanted to create a self-supporting private foundation to offer courses at four times the price of state-financed versions. They said the plan would have helped to meet student demand in overbooked courses, but later shelved  the idea.
Santa Monica has hardly been the only community college in the state to try to get creative to serve more students. A recent report  found that budget cuts, and resulting faculty layoffs and hiring freezes, have forced the system to turn away 600,000 students in recent years.
Coastline Community College, for example, has been working on a plan to allow its students to enroll simultaneously  in online bachelor programs at the University of Massachusetts Online, Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus and the University of Illinois at Springfield.
The partnerships would have allowed students to attend Coastline full time for their first year of course offerings. Then they would have simultaneously attended the college and one of its university partners for the next two years. The final year of enrollment would be university-only, in “capstone” courses.
The project’s leaders predicted it would cut Coastline’s waitlist in half and allow the college to enroll an additional 10,000 students.
The three partner universities had promised to charge Coastline students their in-state tuition rates. So a bachelor’s degree from UMass Online would cost about $25,000. Degrees would have been substantially cheaper than those offered by for-profit institutions, which have aggressively recruited in California, according to the project’s leaders.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had funded the pilot program, which has been overseen by the League for Innovation in the Community College.
But the chancellor’s office put the kibosh on the idea earlier this year. A system official told the college that it would have run afoul of the state’s prohibition on differential tuition.
Harris last month wrote  to Andrew C. Jones, Coastline’s chancellor, to concur with the earlier decision by Barry A. Russell, the system’s vice chancellor of academic affairs. He said it wasn’t an easy call.
“Let me say that I understand your motivation to create this innovative approach in association with some extremely impressive partners,” he said. “My concerns, and those of Vice Chancellor Russell, are not with the content of the program, but rather the fact that this group of students must pay considerably more for their education.”
Harris, who took the helm  last fall, said he had taken a “consistent and firm stand” on differential tuition in his letter to the California Community College CEO Board. The state's education code does not allow differential tuition , he said, and that has been the basis for the system leadership's previous denial of such requests.
And in addition to concerns about legality and student access, Harris said in the letter that charging different tuition rates would raise several other thorny questions. It could have a disparate impact by gender, race, ethnicity or age. Or it could open the door for policy challenges, like further budget cuts or changes to funding formulas for different academic programs.
“Instead of differential fees, I encourage, as has our system for many years,” he wrote, “a fee policy that would only allow for modest and predictable fee increases in response to the increasing cost of living.”