One price should fit all at California's junior colleges


May 6, 2013 

Imagine you go to the grocery store and find long lines at the checkout. A clerk approaches and says, "You can wait in line, or if you're willing to pay four times more, we can get you out right away."

That, in essence, is what Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, is proposing for California's community colleges in Assembly Bill 955. Can't get into a high-demand course? Pay a $600 fee for a three-credit course and take it during the summer or winter intersession. Students in the regular class would pay the usual $138. Parallel courses, but different prices.

When Santa Monica City College tried this "hot lane" or "pay-to-play" ploy last year, students and then-system Chancellor Jack Scott objected and it was abandoned. A similar bill in 2011 passed the Assembly but, thankfully, died in the Senate.

Now it's back and whizzing through Assembly committees. It passed out of the higher education committee April 9 and the Appropriations committee last week.

This is despite the fact that Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris opposes the idea. In a March 15 letter to presidents at the state's 112 community colleges, he wrote that differential fees "would ultimately be devastating to open access and (have) the potential to undermine a system that has been the gateway to a better life for all Californians regardless of their background."

Harris understands the temptation to resort to two-tier pricing. During the economic downturn and subsequent squeeze on state budgets, funding for community colleges was cut$809 million over three years. Faculty and staff were cut. Class sizes grew to 20-year highs; teacher-to-student ratios rose to 11-year highs. The number of course sections decreased. Students faced waiting lists.

The solution, however, is not to create a pricing system that favors "haves" over "have-nots."

Under AB 955, the decision to go to two-tier pricing would be made by each of the 66 community college districts, creating a patchwork of fees. Currently, community college fees are set by the Legislature and governor, providing statewide uniformity so students and families can plan effectively for costs.

The bill's sponsor is trying to mitigate the damage of two-tier pricing by setting aside one-third of fee revenue from the higher-cost courses for lower-income students. That doesn't change the basic problem, however — setting up a "hot lane" instead of working slowly to reverse the cuts and the waiting lines that resulted from the economic downturn.

To restore needed course sections over time, a better, broader solution than two-tier pricing might be a gradual, overall increase in fees — which remain among the lowest in the nation. For a full-time California community college student, fees are $1,380. The national average is $3,075. Alternatively, the Legislature could, over time, reverse the state's disinvestment in the community colleges.

The Assembly should vote down the ill-conceived two-tier pricing bill. But if it doesn't, the Senate should — as it did in 2011. In a public education system, legislators should not let deep pockets determine a student's success.

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