(Students shout slogans while holding placards during a protest at the California State University of Los Angeles campus on March 6, 2012 in California, where a demonstration was held to protest CSULA’s and other California universities “lack of support to end the budget cuts.” AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images))

Latino-serving CA community college stirs controversy with two-tier tuition system

California’s budget woes have led to tuition increases and student protests.  (Photo/Getty Images)

One of the most successful community colleges in the country is Santa Monica College, which serves 34,000 students, many of them Latino – and it is planning to raise its prices. A steep decline in state funding has left this California community college with reduced funds, so there are fewer slots for the mandatory “core” classes. Its solution – a first-of-its kind plan to charge much steeper fees for the higher-demand “core” classes during the summer and winter terms – has stirred controversy.

“Every year we look around and think about how we can serve more students, but what we have now is not working,” said Santa Monica College president Chui L. Tsang, as quoted in a New York Times article.  

California’s community colleges have lost more than $800 million in the last four years, as the state has made drastic budget cuts following the recession. Santa Monica College’s tuition increase would go from $36 a credit to about $200. 

This has led to student protests and a spirited debate on this plan.  In the student newspaper “The Corsair,” student journalist Vanessa Barajas writes that these higher fees would greatly increase the cost of the mandatory classes needed to graduate, and make a course cost anywhere from $200 to $1600.  

“It is wrong to deny a student an education that offers a successful future,” writes Barajas. “Yet, the system governing Santa Monica College has been forcing students into the life-stalling decision to not attend school.” 

Community colleges enroll more than half of undergraduate Latino students, according to the College Board. In a recent Excelencia in Education report called “Finding Your Workforce: The Top 25 Institutions Graduating Latinos,” almost half of the associate degrees awarded in 2009-2010 were to Latino students. 

Yet in recent years, Latino educators have been alarmed at the cuts in state spending, especially in Latino-heavy states like California.

“This is evidence of the underresourcing of higher education in the state of California, but it’s happening across the nation,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, President of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). “Investments in higher education have been reduced continuously at the state level,” he adds. Recently the Obama administration pledged $8 billion for increased training in community colleges. But in 2009, Congress cut President Obama’s $12 billion proposal for community colleges to $2 billion.

Dr. Flores says he understands why the Santa Monica College administration is proposing this two-tier class pricing “with the best of intentions” as they tackle a lack of funding. Yet, he says, “it’s very troubling to see this plan emerging.” 

Educators like Flores concede the issue is complicated.  For example, he says, it is true that $36 credits are very low, especially for wealthy families. One alternative, says Dr. Flores, is to charge different course credit fees based on affordability, instead of making all students, especially low-income families, pay steeper course credits.

Santa Monica College’s “two-tier” plan might not be allowed by California officials. In November, California voters will vote on whether to increase taxes, which would add funds to the state’s colleges.    

In the meantime, one student, Kayleigh Wade, was quoted in the school’s paper as saying “I came out of high school thinking of going to a community college to save money…Now there isn’t going to be a difference…It’s like education is now for the elite.”

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