Two-tier class-pay system at community colleges is just too bad an idea

A bird's-eye view of Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.
A bird's-eye view of Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Allowing some California community colleges to adopt an inequitable, two-tier fee system was a lousy idea last year. It’s an even lousier idea today, when the state economy is finally rebounding.

Here’s the basic idea: Students unable to get into high-demand courses, such as English and math, would have the option of enrolling in equivalent courses offered at the same college, but they would have to pay much higher fees.

Santa Monica College introduced the proposal last year, but dropped it following a public outcry.

Recently, Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, put forward a revised proposal that would allow community colleges to offer extension courses during the winter and summer for around $200 per unit. Only those colleges that could prove they were at capacity for two years would be allowed to offer the more expensive courses.

Williams told the Los Angeles Times that there is precedent — the CSU system, for example, offers extension courses that often charge hefty fees.

But it’s one thing for Cal Poly to offer a fee-based, professional development course in accounting, say, or an enrichment course in drawing or wine appreciation. It’s quite another when a 17- or 18-year-old is charged $200 per unit to take basic algebra or English at a community college, when other students pay $46 per unit.

That’s unfair to both groups of students. Those who can’t afford to foot the bill will be stuck waiting for space to open up in the less expensive classes. And those who can will be bailing out the state of California, which has increasingly sought to shirk its duty to higher education.

For the record, there’s been no indication that either Cuesta or Hancock is interested in a two-tier system.

“I’m not interested in it,” said Cuesta President Gil Stork. “I don’t agree with the approach.”

Good for him.

However, we believe it would set a terrible precedent if any community college were to offer “pay to play” courses.

It’s true that community colleges remain grossly underfunded — years of successive state cuts have taken a huge toll — but it would be far more equitable to raise fees a modest amount for all students.

Expanding online course offerings would be another way to improve access to courses. While online learning isn’t for everyone — and is not appropriate for all disciplines — it is a cost-effective method to deliver education to motivated students.

Bottom line: The community college system needs help, but a two-tiered system is not the way to rescue it.

We strongly urge state lawmakers and community college officials throughout California to abandon the idea, once and for all.