Santa Monica College's Two-Tiered Course Pricing

Community colleges have always been regarded as less expensive options for low-class students, and as a good option for those who wish to facilitate their transition into four-year colleges. Today, however, it appears that community colleges are shifting away from being a good option for low-class students, given the new tuition system that Santa Monica College’s governing board approved last March. Santa Monica College (SMC) intends to implement a two-tier pricing system on high-demand courses; the idea behind this decision is to facilitate enrollment for those students who truly need it (as well as to generate additional funding that allows for the college to cope with increasing budget cuts). A two-tier pricing system may very well be what SMC needs, but it is certainly not what the bulk of its students need (or what they want). Two-tier pricing is tantamount to privatization; differentiated course pricing excludes lower-income students from procuring the instruction they require to get ahead, thus fomenting greater social inequality (and hindering the country’s economic growth and development).

Education is a right that all Americans have, regardless of their class, race, creed, etc.; it is a universal right that government (both at the federal and state levels) must offer at the lowest possible cost. Historically, the United States has managed to provide basic professional training for low-class students in community colleges. Low-class students cannot afford the expensive tuition fees that four-year colleges across the country charge its students. Therefore, these students turn to community colleges as their only option of procuring some form of professional education that will allow them to get a relatively good job that guarantees salaries and benefits much better than those that a high school graduate would get.

Two-year colleges have always been a less-expensive option for students—and an especially good option for those who would like to get basic prerequisites out of the way before transferring to a more expensive four-year college. But for other students, community colleges are their only shot at getting a higher education. That’s because while low-income students are too often priced out of traditional four-year colleges, at community colleges they can complete job training courses that often result in a much higher-paying job than they could have gotten with only a high school diploma (Webley).

SMC has always offered high quality education at low costs for all of its students. However, in recent years the country’s economic problems have forced this community college to seek alternatives to federal and state level public funding. Following this line of thought, the college’s governing board has determined that the only viable alternative for the college to remain open is to implement a two-tier pricing system on certain high-demand courses. In justifying this decision, “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” (Rivera). Furthermore, they have stressed the gravity of the college’s financial difficulties by stating that “the campus could lose an additional $5 million in the 2012-13 budget year if a tax initiative on the November ballot fails” (Rivera).

Evidently, the college’s financial situation is complicated, but it becomes clear that by raising course credit prices from $36 to 180$, the situation will only worsen, as low-class students will find it virtually impossible to cope with such increased costs (especially considering that they are already having enough trouble coping as it is). Administrators may state that “since 2009, enrollment in California community colleges has fallen by 300,000 students, to 2.6 million, and many believe the difficulty of registering for classes is the most important deterrent” (Medina). This might seem like a valid argument, especially when the underlying justification is that differentiated pricing allows for students who need certain courses (either to graduate or to transfer into a four-year college) to secure enrollment. However, there is no question that the highest priority should be to provide education for low-class Americans.

Education is not a privilege; it is a right, especially for those who lack the resources to procure education in private institutions. Education allows for enhanced social mobility, which ultimately leads to a higher standard of living. The country should promote educational programs that include the lowest sectors of society, enabling them to become productive (and contribute to increase the country’s economic output). Instead, through the tier-pricing system proposed by Santa Monica College (one that will probably be emulated by other community colleges across the country in the upcoming months and years), the highly accessible public education being offered by community colleges is greatly compromised. By raising enrollment fees in 500%, the courses with the highest demand become inaccessible. Even if colleges seek private contributions (in the form of scholarships and subsidies), it is highly unlikely that all low-class students will be able to cope with increased education costs.

The solution cannot be to increase tuition pricing, but to seek alternate forms of financing that do not directly affect students. Instead of striving for private funding in the form of scholarships and subsidies for students, the governing board should seek donations and other such contributions that might enable the college to open additional classes so that student registration would not be a problem. It is important to remember on this point that public education should always be offered at the lowest possible cost. Two-tier pricing is clearly not a viable option, especially now that the country still suffers the aftershocks of one of its worst economic recessions.

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