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Senate Bill 1550 proposes pilot program that charges higher fees to help offset community college cuts

Proposed changes under Senate Bill 1550
"¢bull; Create pilot program for California community colleges to charge higher fees for new set of classes focused on career training
"¢bull; Offer a set of technical courses at higher student fees
"¢bull; Help close $809 million gap caused by funding cuts to the community college system over three years

By Suzy Strutner

May 31, 2012 1:03 a.m.

A bill intended to help community colleges cope with budget restrictions by changing how their courses are structured is making its way through California Senate committees and will soon be up for a vote in the Senate.

Introduced in February by Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, Senate Bill 1550 would create a pilot program allowing several California community colleges to charge higher fees for a new set of classes focused on career training.

The bill aims to compensate for $809 million in funding cuts to the community college system over the last three years, said Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. The University of California has also seen significant reductions in funding from the state in recent years.

“Demand hasn’t gone down for higher education; it’s gone up,” Feist said. “So supporters (of the bill) see this as a way to increase student capacity despite the budget constraints we face.”

Community colleges currently offer many classes without receiving state funding for them in an effort to allow a greater number of students to attend school, said Adam Wetsman, president of the academic senate at Rio Hondo Community College.

The proposed legislation comes at a time of declining state support for California public universities, Feist said.

In April, the Santa Monica Community College Board of Trustees proposed a two-tiered class enrollment for the 2012 summer session.

Under the plan, students could pay more to enroll in one of 50 sections for high-demand classes, such as English, math and science.

Several hundred students protested the proposal at a trustees’ meeting, saying it would put students who couldn’t afford the extra expense at a disadvantage. The board then voted to postpone integrating the two-tiered system, and the proposed additional sections of the classes will not be offered this summer.

Efforts to offer classes at tiered prices reflect how the state’s higher education systems are responding to sharp reductions in state funding. UC experts say the program could make it more likely for UC campuses to also implement these ideas, said Richard Wagoner, UCLA associate professor of education.

UC Irvine, for example, has intermittently discussed charging more for certain undergraduate programs that are more costly to the university, such as engineering, he said. The more expensive courses in Wright’s pilot plan, however, are not required courses like these but are specialized technical courses.

Given the state’s limited finances, SB 1550 may be a creative solution to decreased funding that could benefit students, Wagoner said.

Since the bill was introduced, some community college officials have expressed concern about tiered-tuition systems, saying that the financial burden of more costly programs should be absorbed by the state, rather than the students.

“(The two-tier system) would dole out access based on a student’s ability to pay, and that’s a concern,” Wetsman said. “The state needs to provide more funding to community colleges.”

The proposal also represents a recent trend in efforts to fund higher education through student fees rather than taxpayer dollars, said Robert Rhoads, a UCLA professor of education.

Because the bill has been approved by committees in the Senate, Wright said he is hopeful the Senate will approve the legislation before its session ends in September.

It will require approval by the state Assembly before it can be signed into effect.

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Suzy Strutner
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