Access V. Cost: California Bill Would Create Higher-Fee Classes To Increase Access

As states continue to decrease higher education funding, community colleges around the country are looking for new options to keep up with the high demand for access to postsecondary education. A proposal currently working its way through the California Assembly may offer a temporary solution, though the cost to students and potential increased burden on financial aid administrators has some concerned.

California bill AB 955, introduced by Assemblyman Das Williams (D), would allow the state’s community colleges to charge more for high-demand courses during summer and winter sessions. They would be able to offer the so-called extension programs for credit leading to certificates, associate's degrees, and for transfer to four-year universities, if enrollment was at capacity the preceding two years. 

According to Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College and a proponent of the bill, access to community colleges in California has been increasingly restricted since 2010 due to state budget cuts. As a result, over half a million students have been turned away and 4,000 students are on the waitlist for courses at Long Beach City College at the beginning of every semester.

“What we’re trying to do is create another option for colleges to be able to open up more sections that have the demand,” and “to allow our public education system to have other tools in order to offer courses that are needed in the community,” Oakley explained.

For community colleges around the country facing similar struggles, advocates of the measure argue that AB 955 and similar proposals offer a pathway to generate more income while simultaneously increasing access for students to classes that have traditionally only been available in the Fall and Spring semesters. However, many have concerns about the unintended consequences of the proposals and the impact they could have on students and financial aid administrators.

Financial aid administrators may face several burdens under the proposal and others like it, including sorting out which students must pay which fees, addressing student confusion, and tracking the number of enrolled units, said Pat Hurley, associate dean of student financial services at Glendale Community College. “Managing these changes in cost of attendance and aid eligibility could be tricky,” she said.

“The basic problem that most people have with the plan is that for the same required course, some students will pay nothing and others will pay over $600,” Hurley said. “It becomes a fairness issue when students’ options are paying the higher amount or waiting until the course becomes available at the lower rate and delaying graduation for one or two semesters,” she added. 

“In addition, we have priority registration requirements that determine which categories of students can register first,” Hurley said. “Since these are intended to be impacted courses, there will be a definite disadvantage for those students who are not able to register early and get into a subsidized class.”

Hurley also noted that the proposal would impact student aid, as some students will have to borrow more to meet the cost of the classes. “While that may be appropriate for some students, others will be forced into debt they currently don’t have to take on,” she said.

The issue of costs to students is misleading, Oakley said, noting that the bill would require colleges to redirect one-third of the revenue collected to provide fee assistance to low-income students, and that the number of students enrolling in the winter and summer sessions are a fraction of the number enrolling in fall and spring.

In addition, the argument against the proposal and others like it “dismisses the reality on the ground,” Oakley said, adding, “I have no other option for these students, so what I am asking for in this legislation is to be given other options to offer low cost, quality education when we are not getting the state resources necessary to educate these people to begin with.” 

The bill is an attempt to give some temporary relief during a time of high demand and low state revenue, Oakley said. “The ultimate solution is that the state of California provides enough funding to meet demand, but that’s just simply not where we are at right now, or where we will be any time in the foreseeable future,” Oakley said.


Publication Date: 5/3/2013

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