Pay more, learn more

Finally, a silver lining to California's budget crisis: It no doubt played a role in sinking Proposition 92, which would have lowered community college fees and guaranteed the college system a higher share of state funding through a damaging ballot-box budgeting formula.

The election over, though, the community colleges surely do need more money. With close to 2.5 million students enrolled for credit (that doesn't count those taking courses for personal enrichment), these colleges strain to prepare students to transfer to four-year universities, train people for careers and provide remedial and English classes. A partial solution would be to move in the opposite direction from Proposition 92 and raise fees, which stand at $20 a credit or $600 a year for a full-time student.

California has the lowest fees by far of any state -- about half those of New Mexico, the closest contender, and less than one-third the national average. On top of that, fees are waived for more than half of the state's full-time students. A married student with one child and earning $83,000 a year, for example, is entitled to a fee-free education. If the state raised fees by 50%, community colleges would still be far cheaper than anywhere else in the nation, and they would gain a significant infusion of money. Their students would be better off as well.

A March 2007 study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that college fees represent just 5% of the financial burden on community college students. Housing, food and transportation all play a bigger role. Textbooks alone cost more than the courses. And enrollment is at least as likely to drop from reductions in class offerings as from fee increases. This means that the best way for students to save money is to pass through the system as quickly as possible -- and higher fees would allow colleges to provide more classes and thus make it easier for them to do so.

The study also pointed out that, even when they clearly qualify, California's community college students are much less likely to apply for federal Pell grants or loans. Usually, they don't know these options are available or they need help with the forms. Any student applying for a fee waiver should be guided first toward these other financial sources. Higher fees would also qualify them for greater tax credits.

Meanwhile, community colleges could provide more financial relief by reducing textbook expenses than by holding the current line on fees. Taft College in Kern County runs a textbook rental library from which students obtain most of their needed texts. The books rent for 20% of the cover price. Even if students buy a book or two, they save $500 a year, more than offsetting even a substantial increase in fees.

When the budget picture improves, the community colleges should still be toward the front of the line for more funding. But they will be able to make a better argument for that money by showing they've made strides toward increasing revenue while saving students money.

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