Fee Drop Doesn’t Lure Back College Graduates


It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the impact of a special community college enrollment fee imposed by the state Legislature three years ago. In fact, all it took was an undergraduate degree.

With community colleges crammed with students, legislators decided to ease classroom crowding in 1993 by charging students who already held a bachelor’s degree an extra $50 per unit to take a community college course, usually worth three or four units. The plan, designed to make room for students just beginning their post-high school education, worked.

At Orange County’s eight community college campuses, some 12,000 students with degrees stopped taking classes.


“I was never, never going to pay that $50 fee,” said Alma Priester, 71, a retired physical therapist and a former veteran of community college courses. “I just felt that $50 fee was very discriminatory toward people who were fortunate enough to have a degree.”

Realizing the so-called “differential fee” was keeping too many students out, lawmakers decided last year not to renew the fee, effective Jan. 1. The cheaper classroom price, however, hasn’t produced a stampede of returning students at local campuses yet.

Although registration continues for a couple more weeks, local community colleges report that students with degrees signing up for classes at a cost of $13 per unit number in the hundreds, not thousands. And they aren’t expecting a last-minute rush.

The numbers posted by Orange Coast College, where classes begin Jan. 22, seem typical among Orange County community colleges. When the differential fee was enacted, officials at the Costa Mesa campus estimate they lost 1,800 students with degrees.

By last semester, about 750 of those students had returned to OCC, despite the higher fees. But this semester, with the fee gone, only 250 more students have signed up, leaving the school some 800 short of the enrollment three years ago.

Meanwhile, college officials realized the legislators’ concern was unfounded and first-time students were not being squeezed out by returning students.

But college officials, who have advertised the fee change in newspapers, aren’t surprised by the modest response.

“The drop was a lot more dramatic than the return has been,” said Nancy Kidder, dean of admissions at Orange Coast College. “It’s going to take some time to get the word out.”

Another reason students are slow to return might be lingering bitterness about the fee in the first place, officials said. The fee came at a time in Orange County when many students with degrees had been laid off from jobs and were seeking an economical way to retrain themselves for the workplace. Others simply wanted to upgrade their job skills in a computer or business class.

“What legislators didn’t realize was the students they would be hurting were those that really needed the community college system the most,” said Donna Hatchett, a spokeswoman for the North Orange County Community College District. “As a result, students were denied access, which in turn hurt the state work force, which in turn hurt the state economy.”

Added Kidder: “It was very bad public relations. Some people even stayed away as kind of a protest vote.”

But college officials, who expect to recover the students eventually, are glad the fee has been eliminated.

“The legislature’s intent was honorable,” Hatchett said. “But we can’t discriminate against people just because they have a bachelor’s degree. It goes against the established mission of community colleges, which is to be there for everybody who wants to get in.”

For prospective students such as Priester, who is considering a class in Spanish, the fee’s elimination is welcome news for her and her community.

“We need an educated society,” said Priester, president of the volunteer guild at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim. “We can’t just have a group of narrow technicians who never read a poem or branched out in some other way running things.”