California community colleges need to raise student fees


California must make community college more affordable by raising student fees. Seriously.

In the second round of federal stimulus money for higher education, California’s community colleges received $5 million this month. That’s nice, but not half as much as they would have gotten if they’d raised fees by a mere $1 a unit from the current $26. For the average full-time student, that would amount to a total increase of perhaps $30 a year; it would have boosted the colleges’ budget by $12.5 million. A $10-a-unit increase would bring in $125 million more a year, and the state would still have the least expensive community colleges in the nation.

That $10 increase, or about $300 a year, would in fact save students money. Because of budget cuts, students are competing for seats in the classes they need for a vocational certificate or to move on to a four-year school. Many cannot get into enough classes to be considered full time, which means they don’t qualify for student health insurance. Worse, they must spend an extra semester or even a year to earn the credits needed for a degree, certificate or transfer. One extra semester of living expenses costs a lot more than $300.


The extra money should be reserved for two purposes: offering more of the classes students need, and waiving the fees for students who can’t afford them. Most working-class students already qualify. Those with more robust financial resources don’t lose out either — the federal tuition tax credit that began last year effectively reimburses them for up to $2,000 a year in fees and textbooks.

A 2009 report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office suggested raising fees, but there is always such an emotional and irrational outcry that legislators cower. A proposal this legislative year to raise the fees by $14 a unit — which would still leave the colleges the second-best bargain in the nation — never even sparked a serious conversation. The report also noted that higher fees do not keep students from enrolling, but lack of classes does. Community college enrollment has fallen by 200,000 this academic year, which the colleges attribute to the unavailability of classes.

Students are starting to see the folly of overly low fees in a bad economy. A Sept. 9 editorial in the student newspaper at El Camino College in Torrance suggests an increase. “Education is all we can strive for during this time,” the editorial board wrote. “We’re willing to pay more, we’re willing to help pitch in, we just want to save our campus.” Smart kids. Imagine what they could accomplish with a college education.