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Originally published March 29, 2012 at 10:00 PM | Page modified March 30, 2012 at 9:23 PM

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California community college to raise tuition for popular courses

This summer, Santa Monica College will offer some courses for a higher price, so that students who are eager to get into a particular class can do so if they pay more.

New York Times

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. — For years now, administrators at the community college here have been inundated with woeful tales from students unable to register for the courses they need. Classes they want for essential job training or to fulfill requirements to transfer to four-year universities fill up within hours. Hundreds of students resort to crying and begging to enroll in a class, lining up at the doors of instructors and academic counselors.

Now, though, Santa Monica College is about to try something novel. This summer it will offer some courses for a higher price, so that students who are eager to get into a particular class can do so if they pay more.

The plan may be the first of its kind in the country, college officials and other higher-education experts say, and if the college succeeds in implementing it, many other community colleges across the country are likely to follow.

Since 2009, enrollment in California community colleges has fallen by 300,000 students, to 2.6 million, and many believe the difficulty of registering for classes is the most important deterrent.

For generations, community colleges have been seen as a social equalizer, providing a relatively inexpensive education for poor students, immigrants and others without the skills or grades to get into one of the nation's four-year institutions, or the money to afford the tuition.

So the two-tiered tuition structure being proposed here is raising eyebrows, and fundamental questions, about the role and obligations of community colleges.

Will the policy essentially block some of the very people it hopes to benefit? Many students believe it will unfairly exclude the poorest students and create a kind of upper and lower class of students.

The background to all of this is the financial squeeze that has affected public education since the recession led to a reduction of first federal and then state financing for colleges and universities. Since 2008, the system has lost $809 million from the state, including $564 million in the most recent budget, even as more students than ever before try to enroll.

Each community college class now costs $36 per credit hour. Under Santa Monica's plan, the more expensive courses would cost $180 per credit hour — just enough to cover the college's costs, said Chui Tsang, the president of Santa Monica College..

While the college is still ironing out the details, it expects to offer about 200 courses at the higher-tuition price, in addition to hundreds of regularly priced courses. College officials say that nearly every class is filled to capacity and that they are asking departments to choose which courses have the highest demand so they can offer more of those — typically basic courses in English, writing, math and science.

For now, the college does not plan to offer the higher-priced courses in the fall and spring semesters, but will charge $180 per credit for all classes in the shorter winter term. Nearly every other community college in the state has eliminated the winter term in recent years because of the budget cuts.

"There is a real concern about equity here, because if there are higher fees that will only gain access for certain students, does that really address the problem," said Paul Feist, the vice chancellor for communications of the California Community Colleges. "The reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of students who are not getting access to community college — and access has always been what we are famous for."

Santa Monica College, which has 34,000 students, is widely considered one of the most successful community colleges in the country, with one of the highest transfer rates to four-year colleges. Many students from Los Angeles choose to attend the school for their first two years as a way to save money.

California community colleges have some of the lowest tuition fees in the country. And for decades, the community college system has operated under the presumption that lower fees translated into greater access, said John Aubrey Douglass, a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley. But as budget cuts have forced campuses to dramatically scale back what they can offer, that paradigm has begun to shift.

"There's a sense that if the colleges can generate the adequate income themselves, they may no longer be struggling with the lack of resources, because there is certainly a tremendous level of demand," Douglass said. "It's a much-needed conversation that we need to have — is it possible our tuition is too low? This is a very important move to push the envelope."

One donor has agreed to give $250,000 in scholarships for students who want to take the more expensive classes but cannot afford them. Tsang hopes that will make the program more attractive.

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