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Speaking Up for Education : Rancho Santiago College Students Protest Fee Hike That Would Force Many Out of School

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Waving signs and shouting “No more fees,” about 1,500 Rancho Santiago College students Thursday called on state lawmakers to scuttle a proposed community college fee increase that protesters said would force them out of school.

The peaceful noontime protest left classrooms virtually empty as students swarmed onto the sidewalk in front of the school and onto 17th Street west of Bristol, blocking traffic.

Community college fees increased from $6 for each unit last fall to $10 for each unit this spring for most students. Those holding a bachelor’s degree must pay $50 for each unit.

Gov. Pete Wilson has proposed increasing basic fees to $30 for each unit. Those holding advanced degrees would have to pay $104 for each unit.

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“I may have to do without food to get an education,” said Kelley Graham, 28, of Orange.

Graham, a single mother working to become a doctor, said that higher fees would make her continued education difficult, if not impossible.

Caryn Thomason, 30, of Santa Ana said the fee hike could force her to go into debt while she tries to complete her nursing classes.

The protest--sponsored by Associated Students of Rancho Santiago College--started shortly before noon as students chanted, “Education first,” in front of the Administration Building. Many carried signs that read: “Gov. Wilson, help us, don’t bury us,” and “Don’t limit my education.”

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Soon after, the crowd lined up along 17th Street in front of the campus, waving signs, shouting and blowing whistles at passing motorists. When the crowd spilled into the street, more than a dozen Santa Ana police officers warned students that they would be arrested if they kept blocking traffic.

Student leaders ushered the crowd back onto the campus, where the rally ended an hour later without incident.

The protest came three days after the district laid off about 30 employees as part of its $9-million spending cut for the next fiscal year. As part of the cuts, the district has already canceled most weekend classes for the spring semester.

Speaking into a bullhorn as the protest began, Chancellor Vivian Blevins told the crowd: “You have to speak up. You must write letters (to state officials). You must let people know the impact that ‘defunding’ education is having on us. It’s absolutely devastating us.”

Blevins said later that the proposed fee increase could force 3,000 students, who can barely afford classes now, out of school. That represents nearly 14% of the 22,000 students who now attend classes at Rancho Santiago Community College District’s three campuses.

“If they don’t go here, they won’t go anywhere,” she said. “The long-term impact of that is having masses of people not educated, not paying taxes--it leads to all sorts of social problems.”

Victor Gregory, 20, of Huntington Beach said he would stay in school despite any fee increase. But, he added: “This is going to hurt. I’m going to have to take out a loan if my parents can’t help.”

Lawmakers should give education top priority, Gregory said. “We’re supposed to be promoting education in this country, at least that’s what I thought.”

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BACKGROUND: Cost of Education

As part of his plan to slash the state’s budget deficit, Gov. Pete Wilson has proposed cutting funding for community colleges by $301 million, or 11.1%, and raising student fees. Under Wilson’s proposal, community college fees for most students would increase from $10 to $30 for each unit. For students with advanced degrees, fees would more than double, from $50 to $104 for each unit. The proposed increase would affect 1.5 million community college students statewide. A full load of classes under the plan would cost most students about $900 a year.


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