Faced with deep funding cuts and strong student demand, Santa Monica College is pursuing a plan to offer a selection of higher-cost classes to students who need them, provoking protests from some who question the fairness of such a two-tiered education system.
Under the plan, approved by the governing board and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the two-year college would create a nonprofit foundation to offer such in-demand classes as English and math at a cost of about $200 per unit. Currently, fees are $36 per unit, set by the Legislature for California community college students. That fee will rise to $46 this summer.
The classes would be offered as soon as the upcoming summer and winter sessions; and, if successful, the program could expand to the entire academic year. The mechanics of the program are still being worked out, but generally the higher-cost classes would become available after state-funded classes fill up. The winter session may offer only the higher-cost classes, officials said.
Students who qualify would be able to use financial aid such as Cal Grants for the classes, college officials said, but they are also seeking private funds to establish scholarships for needy students.
The 34,000-student Santa Monica campus has one of the highest transfer rates to four-year universities in the state and a reputation for innovative programs that are a model for other community colleges. But some say higher-priced classes are tantamount to privatizing the public institution.
Administrators say the plan is a reaction to drastic state funding cuts, which have forced the campus to pare more than 1,000 class sections since 2008. In the current year, funding was reduced by $11 million. The campus could lose an additional $5 million in the 2012-13 budget year if a tax initiative on the November ballot fails.
And with the budget crisis threatening more class cuts, they argue that this plan provides an interim solution to maintain access for students who need classes to transfer.
The courses, which would be taught by campus faculty, would supplement rather than supplant regular course offerings and increase access for students who otherwise would be turned away, said Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang.
"Our classes are inundated with students begging to be enrolled after they're full," Tsang said. "We've had people from the community asking us if we can open up more courses. The alternative is that students can wait and try their luck next semester or go outside to a more expensive private or for-profit college."
Such a dual program appears to be a first for a public institution, experts said.
"It shows some attempt to be innovative," said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities. "At a four-year school it might turn some heads, but it makes sense at a community college level, where the tuition is low and the capacity issue is especially acute."
But other academic experts have questioned the legality, equity and practicality of the plan.
Paul Feist, a spokesman for California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott, said the plan does not appear to comply with state education codes, which have been interpreted to permit employers to offer contract courses to fill specific needs. Moreover, state law does not appear to allow students to be charged differential fees for the types of courses Santa Monica envisions offering, Feist said.
No decision has been made on whether the chancellor will intervene, he said.
A bill, supported by Santa Monica College, that would have allowed all community colleges in California to maintain extension programs offering credit courses — for higher fees — failed to advance in the state Senate last year.
Tsang cited the example of some K-12 school districts such as Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, which offers fee-based summer school "get-ahead" classes, as a precedent.
Trustee Nancy Greenstein said the college believes it is on solid legal ground but acknowledged risks regarding the plan's success.
Many students said they view the board's action as a move toward privatizing programs while relieving the state of its responsibility to adequately fund public higher education.
"It's creating a two-tiered system of wealthier students who can afford classes and struggling working-class and low-income students competing for the scraps of what's left; it's definitely a move in the wrong direction," said student government President Harrison Wills.
Wills was among dozens of students who urged the seven-member Board of Trustees last weekto reject the plan. Only board Chairwoman Margaret Quinones-Perez and student trustee Joshua Scuteri, whose vote is advisory, opposed it.
Trustee Louise Jaffe dismissed fears that the plan would shut out low-income students, arguing that they already are being driven to expensive for-profit institutions where they are amassing huge debt.
Fees for the new program will still be well below those of private and for-profit colleges as well as Cal State University and the University of California, she said.
"We think we can serve those students at a much better price and a much better value and not let them sit out there," Jaffe said.
Faculty members have concerns about the plan, especially regarding curriculum, but they are working with administrators to ensure that the high-cost courses meet standards, said Janet Harclerode, president of the Academic Senate.
"We already have students in classes who have fee waivers or are international or out-of-state students paying different amounts," Harclerode said. "Equity is very important for us, but it's really painful to turn students away."
Administrators at every level of higher education, from community colleges to the Cal State and UC systems, have been left with no good options as the state has slashed funding by billions of dollars in recent years, said Patrick Callan, president of the San Jose-based Higher Education Policy Institute.
But the Santa Monica plan represents a fundamental shift in policy that needs more scrutiny, he said.
"It's disheartening that the discussion for many colleges is what's the best way to ration education," Callan said. "No rationing of education is good, but it seems to me that rationing on the basis of financial means is an issue that has to do with what the mission of a community college really is. Whether or not it can be finessed legally, it ought to be debated as a major policy issue."