Nearing midnight and with the sting of pepper spray in the air, Santa Monica College trustees wondered how their plan to offer a selection of higher cost classes this summer had come to be so misunderstood.
For many on the eight-member panel, which includes a humanities professor, an ACLU board member and a college counselor, the plan was conceived as a progressive response to drastic state funding cuts and was intended to increase access and allow more students to graduate and transfer.
The plan, said one, was socialism in action. But just an hour before, angry demonstrators had nearly beaten down the door, hurling accusations that a two-tier pricing system would shut out low-income students and lead to privatizing public education. A campus police officer used pepper spray to stop the surging crowd.
“It’s an opportunity to make a very progressive policy, an opportunity to be Robin Hood,” said trustee Rob Rader, who summed up the frustrations of many of his colleagues near the end of the April 3 meeting.
Furthermore, he said, the successful two-year school is in an area considered by many to be a liberal bastion.
“The plan is quintessentially Santa Monica, and it’s a bitter irony to hear the criticism,” Rader said.
The frustration of Rader and other college leaders has intensified as the campus plan has become a symbol of the desperate quest to increase access for students, while sparking a national debate on the mission of public colleges.
The plan approved by the community college last month and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, would offer high-demand, core education courses such as English, math and history at a cost of $180 per unit, alongside state-funded courses set at $46 per unit. The program was to be offered this summer with enrollment beginning next month.
The theory was that students would enroll in the higher-priced courses, if they could afford it, leaving more openings in the lower-cost classes. The courses satisfy requirements for graduation and to transfer. A scholarship fund was established to help low-income students afford the higher-priced classes.
But trustees canceled a planned summer launch after California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott expressed concerns about the fairness and legality of the plan.
Scott’s office said last week that it had received notice from the state attorney general confirming its interpretation that education codes permit employers to offer so-called contract courses to fill specific needs but does not allow students to be charged dual fees for the types of courses Santa Monica plans to offer.
Despite that obstacle, college officials still believe they can resolve differences with Scott to continue with some form of the program.
“We believe it’s a strong way to go forward, and what we hope is to get information to prove or disprove that,” said college President Chui L. Tsang.
The 34,000-student Santa Monica campus has been placed in an unusual position: It had been known for its innovative programs; for having one of the best transfer rates to four-year schools, such as the University of California and USC; and for attracting the largest population of international students of any community college in the nation.
About 3,300 students from Korea, China, Sweden and other countries are enrolled in the college. They pay the nonresident rate of $275 per unit and generate annual revenues of $13 million, which had allowed the college to offer a higher level of services such as counseling and more classes until recent budget cuts forced severe reductions.
The success of the international program provided an impetus to expand the scope of so-called contract education, and in fall 2010 the college offered 18 extra sections of courses such as English, economics and art history open only to international students.
But whether extending the concept to California residents was a bold response to education cuts or an entrepreneurial misstep is a matter of debate.
Whichever, it underscores a higher education system in deep distress, said Hans Johnson, a fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
“Santa Monica College in some ways should be given credit for such an innovative solution, but it does raise questions about equity,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure the two-tiered system is the solution, but I see it as a sign of how the system is at or near the breaking point.”
College officials could have done a better job of selling the plan; it was widely interpreted as an exclusive program that would mostly benefit those with means, said Trustee Nancy Greenstein.
“I think the message got away from us,” said Greenstein, a board member and past president of the ACLU of Southern California. “I think for most of us, we were trying to be progressive and figure out how everyone could be educated. For me, it was never about a class system, where someone would have more opportunity than others.”
Rader, an entertainment attorney who is prone to quoting the late historian and political activist Howard Zinn at board meetings, said the state’s disinvestment in public higher education has left schools like Santa Monica almost unable to compete with for-profit colleges, which charge higher tuition but offer students the promise of a quicker route to graduation.
“I’ve heard how awful we are, and how much we’ve succumbed to corporate interests, but this is a way for us to stand up to corporate interests,” Rader said. “Private, for-profit universities are targeting many of our students, and they don’t do as good a job as we do.... We were going to take their business model and make it progressive. It’s progressive jujitsu.”
But others believe that idea is misguided. The dual-fee concept sends the wrong message — that a community college degree can be bought, said Margaret Quinones-Perez, who, along with student trustee Joshua Scuteri, opposed the plan.
“I don’t find something being progressive if it is only by having money that you can get it; it’s an oxymoron,” said Quinones-Perez, a counselor at El Camino College, who graduated from Santa Monica College and served on the statewide community college Board of Governors. “We will straighten this out as a state, and we may have to wait, and we may have to see some pain, but it will be an equalized pain and an equalized solution.”