Every semester since 2009, Sequoyah Hilt has tried to sign up for a phlebotomy course at Long Beach City College. She never got a seat.
Then Hilt heard that the school had openings for her long-awaited class. There was just one catch: The monthlong winter extension course could cost up to $225 per unit, nearly five times the normal price.
Hilt went for it. The 26-year-old needed the class to learn to take blood samples for a new career as a medical technician.
She ended up paying $135 — instead of the full price of $337.50 — because of a fee waiver granted by the school. Hilt said she was uncomfortable shelling out almost double what the course normally costs, but she said she just "couldn't keep waiting it out."
Long Beach City College is the first in the state to offer a tiered pricing plan, approved by the state Legislature last fall. Under the law, six community colleges were allowed to implement a two-tiered pricing system for high-demand classes during summer and winter terms until 2018. The two-year colleges typically charge $46 per unit, among the lowest in the country.
Educators and experts say colleges nationwide may be watching the Long Beach experiment, one of the only such programs in the country, as a way to get around budget cuts and high demand for required courses.
The five higher-priced winter courses at Long Beach included offerings in environmental science and geography. The college had to cancel a business course because of lack of interest. Four of the courses are needed to fulfill requirements in a major or to transfer.
College President Eloy Ortiz Oakley said he wasn't concerned that some of the classes didn't reach capacity. The school didn't have much time to plan which courses to offer.
"We're going to learn as we go," he said.
The college also couldn't offer in-demand lower-level math and reading courses during the winter session because it is too short. Those courses may be available at a higher cost during the longer summer session, although Oakley said he was unsure how long the school would continue the pilot program.
Critics decry the idea, saying it gives wealthier students an unfair advantage.
"It creates two types of students: those who can pay and those who cannot. And it's unfair to the students who have to feed families and are unemployed," said Andrea Donado, the student representative on the Long Beach Community College District Board of Trustees.
"Philosophically it is the mission of our community colleges to provide accessible education. By making some courses [more expensive], that equality is no longer honored," said Lynette Nyaggah, president of the Community College Assn., which represents faculty and staff throughout the state.
Oakley, meanwhile, defends the tiered pricing option, saying that it's a way to offer students more choices and that he was surprised by the outrage over it.
"If our college can provide a solution — that may not be an optimal solution but gives our students options — then we're going to keep doing that," he said.
On a recent morning, nearly 30 students took turns sticking one another with needles in a Long Beach classroom littered with IV bags full of viscous red liquid and plastic arms.
The class is one of the more popular courses because students get a certificate at the end that they need to work in hospitals and other medical facilities. Next semester, the college will offer two sections of the course at regular price. There is already a waiting list of more than 100.
The higher-priced winter course was full, with four students wait-listed.
Instructor Patty Bucho said she can understand why some students are frustrated that the course was open only to those who can pay more, but she said the ones who signed up seemed more motivated — probably because it cost them more.
"I can tell by the punctuality, by their test scores," she said, "they all really want to be here."
Most said they had received fee waivers from the college after demonstrating financial need, but many said they were still annoyed by the higher cost.
"This is a community college. Students come here because they're looking for a cheap education," said Daisy Duenas, who said she paid $334 for the course.
Duenas, 23, said she reluctantly paid the higher fee because she wants to be an emergency room technician and didn't want to keep waiting for an open spot. "It still feels wrong," she said.
The state's 112 community colleges sustained $1.5 billion in budget cuts between 2007 and 2012, leading administrators to cut class sections, according to a recent report.
Efforts to implement similar tiered pricing programs at Santa Monica College and in the San Bernardino Community College District became contentious; students were pepper-sprayed outside of a Santa Monica trustees meeting during the discussion. Neither proposal was implemented.
California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice W. Harris called the original legislation "horrible" public policy. But Gov. Jerry Brown said it was a "reasonable experiment" and signed the bill into law.
Long Beach City College was the only one of the six approved schools to offer more expensive classes. Oxnard College, Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa and Pasadena City College officials said they did not want to participate, while Solano College in Fairfield and College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita had not enrolled enough students.
Colleges have been slow to adopt higher fees for in-demand courses, said David Baime, senior vice president for governmental relations for the American Assn. of Community Colleges in Washington.
"It does sort of smack you in the face that there are different levels of access," he said.
But Baime said community colleges may have to consider similar programs because of reduced state funding, which has led to reduced course availability.
"Institutions at this point are really faced with some difficult financial choices," he said. "A policy like this is basically rationing education on the basis of price, but education has long been rationed on the basis of course availability."
Duenas said students like herself had little choice but to pay extra if the classes give them a shot at more lucrative employment.
"It's not like there are a lot of high-paying jobs out there," she said. "We have to do what we can to get one."