California May Create a Two-Tiered Community College System

At one point, California State Assemblyman Das Williams was homeless, living in a Volkswagen van and getting pretty good grades at Santa Barbara City College.

“I was definitely a non-traditional student,” said the 38-year-old Democrat who now represents the 37th District, including Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

“I had dropped out of high school and I was low income” and still, he said in a recent phone interview, “it was easier for me then, than it is for kids today.”



Within “two years and a summer” Williams had taken all of the required courses and transferred from the coastal community college to U.C. Berkeley.

That has become an increasingly difficult path for students to follow as severe statewide budget cuts have lead colleges to eliminate nearly 100,000 class sections. The reduction in class offerings has caused a bottleneck for basic courses required for transfer to four-year universities, leaving students stuck for years in a wait-listed limbo.

Williams said that’s why he’s authored AB 955—a bill that would allow community colleges to offer high-demand courses over winter and summer sessions for students willing to pay higher fees.

It would more than quadruple the cost of each unit from $46 to about $200, which means most students would pay about $600 for each “extension” course. Those who qualify for the Board of Governors fee waiver would be eligible for financial aid paid for by a portion of the revenue collected from the new fees.

“I freely admit it’s not the best option, but it’s the only option at this time for students who can’t afford to wait four years to get through community college,” said Williams.

The idea to relieve overcrowding and compensate for funding cuts through two-tier course pricing has been controversial since it was first floated in a similar bill in 2011.

Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, contends the fees are equivalent to privatizing public education.

“It’s an unequivocal threat to the idea of fairness and academic democracy that the community college system has held since its inception.”

Opponents say the bill establishes a fast-track system that gives an extra advantage to those with money. It makes “access to core classes dependent on students’ capacity to pay.”

It’s an especially bad idea now that Gov. Jerry Brown has committed to restoring $200 million to California’s community colleges, said Lightman.

An analysis by the Higher Education Committee says funding for the state’s community college system—the largest system of higher education in the country—has been slashed by $809 million, since 2008. That’s nearly 12 percent of the budget.

The Public Policy Institute of California in March reported that course offerings declined from 420,000 to 334,000, over the same period, and most were credit courses necessary to transfer or to obtain a degree or certificate. The institute also estimates approximately 600,000 shut out of classes, while another half million students were on waiting lists for fall 2012 courses.

But after years of bitter belt-tightening, it appears relief is on the horizon.

Unemployment is down throughout the state, the economy is performing better than Governor Brown’s budget expected, and there is the extra bump from Proposition 30, which raises taxes for education.

“The economy is recovering,” said Lightman. “Now is the time to talk about restoring support services and the best practices for re-engaging students.”

Williams’ proposal is the third attempt at creating two-tier pricing. The first, in 2011, made it past the assembly but died on the senate floor. The second, and most recent attempt came in 2012 but never got it to the assembly for a vote.

Last April, Santa Monica City College tried to implement a similar strategy on its own, to cope with an $11 million budget hit, but failed. The move was met with outrage by faculty and students, and came to a head when more than 100 students stormed a Board of Trustees meeting. The protest ended with several students being pepper sprayed and rushed to the hospital. In the end, an investigation by the State Attorney General said it is illegal for a college to independently set its own prices.

In a March 15 letter to campus presidents, California Community College Chancellor, Brice Harris, said 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.”

AB 955 has passed out of the Assembly and is headed for the Senate. If passed, the new fee structure will go into effect this summer. 

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Vanessa Romo is a Los Angeles-based journalist and public radio reporter. Her work has aired on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace.  @vanromo |