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California Community Colleges chancellor to ask AG's office to look at college's pricing plan

Photo by Michele Markel Connors via Flickr Creative Commons

California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott said today he will be asking the state Attorney General's Office for an opinion on the legality of a Santa Monica College program that will allow students to enroll in a selection of higher-cost classes starting this summer.

"The Chancellor's Office has previously indicated to colleges that we believe that step would be illegal," said Scott, speaking to a group of students at Pasadena City College today. "There was an attempt to change the law which failed last year, and now Santa Monica College has chosen to go alone and do it anyway. Frankly, we will seek an opinion from the Attorney General's Office as to whether or not that is legal or not. If it's legal then they can do it. If it's not legal then they cannot."

The plan was approved by Santa Monica College's governing board earlier this month to try and offset the effects of severe cuts to state funding and heavy demand. The college has had to cut 1,100 class sections, or roughly 15 percent of its more than 7,400 since 2008. This year their funding was reduced by $11 million and it is looking at another $5 million cut under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget plan if a tax initiative is not approved by voters in November.

Starting this summer, the college plans to offer about 50 courses priced at $180 to $200 a unit; in the winter it plans to offer another 200 such courses. That would be at least five times the current $36 per unit, which is a fee set by the Legislature. Fees will rise to $46 per unit this summer. The higher-fee classes will support themselves, university officials said.

Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang said he is working with the Chancellor's Office, but believes the new fees would be legal. "We definitely want to work within the limits of the law," Tsang said.

"We have had cuts since 2008, and every year we think that it will turn around the next year, we were hoping that would happen, and so we've been waiting and it hasn't happen," Tsang said. "Our students have been waiting to get back in the doors for a long time, and we can't just sit here. We can do two thing, we can just sit around and wait for the economy to come back, or we can do something to try to help them. And they need help now. The cost of delaying education can be very painful."

Tsang said he hears daily from students who can't get into courses, who ask the college to open up more. Faculty members have reported 20 to 30 students refusing to leave their class because they want to ensure they are on the wait list and hope to get on the class roster if someone drops out," Tsang said.

But Simon Fraser, a second-year student at Pasadena City College who is also chief justice of the Associated Students, said he is fears such a program will proliferate and make it harder for students to who don't have the funds to get the courses they need.

"My worry is that more community colleges are going to do the same thing," Fraser said. "Now we're going to have a two-tiered system. I wouldn't be able to pay for that class."

The college recently received a $250,000 donation to support scholarships for students who qualify, said Santa Monica College spokesman Bruce Smith. Smith said students could also use financial aid to pay for the courses.

The college supported a bill last year that would have allowed all community colleges to provide additional course offerings for higher fees, but that failed to pass in the state Senate.

Such budget pain is being felt at colleges throughout California.

The California Community Colleges system is the largest system of higher education in the country with 112 campuses statewide serving about 2.6 million students. Since 2009-10, the system has been hit by about $770 million in reductions, nearly 13 percent of its $6 billion budget.

Last year 137,000 were turned away; they couldn't get into a single course. Details on the Santa Monica College program are still being worked out, but it is likely they will include basic English and math courses, Smith said.

"We hope that the economy of California will return, and we will then have our funding be restored to the level that we were before," Tsang said. "And when that happens, we don’t have to offer these courses anymore, we'll have enough courses to offer our students that are funded by the state. That's what we hope. But in the meantime, we can address the needs of our students, we cannot abandon them."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).