Higher fees, bet­ter schools

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

Cal­i­for­nia must make com­mu­nity col­lege more af­ford­able by rais­ing stu­dent fees. Se­ri­ously. In the sec­ond round of fed­eral stim­u­lus money for higher ed­u­ca­tion, Cal­i­for­nia’s com­mu­nity col­leges re­ceived $5 mil­lion this month. That’s nice, but not half as much as they would have got­ten if they’d raised fees by a mere $1 a unit from the cur­rent $26. For the av­er­age full­time stu­dent, that would amount to a to­tal in­crease of per­haps $30 a year; it would have boosted the col­leges’ bud­get by $12.5 mil­lion. A $10-a-unit in­crease would bring in $125 mil­lion more a year, and the state would still have the least ex­pen­sive com­mu­nity col­leges in the nation.

That $10 in­crease, or about $300 a year, would in fact save stu­dents money. Be­cause of bud­get cuts, stu­dents are com­pet­ing for seats in the classes they need for a vo­ca­tional cer­tifi­cate or to move on to a four-year school. Many can­not get into enough classes to be con­sid­ered full time, which means they don’t qual­ify for stu­dent health in­surance. Worse, they must spend an ex­tra se­mes­ter or even a year to earn the cred­its needed for a de­gree, cer­tifi­cate or trans­fer. One ex­tra se­mes­ter of liv­ing ex­penses costs a lot more than $300.

The ex­tra money should be re­served for two pur­poses: of­fer­ing more of the classes stu­dents need, and waiv­ing the fees for stu­dents who can’t af­ford them. Most work­ing­class stu­dents al­ready qual­ify. Those with more ro­bust fi­nan­cial re­sources don’t lose out ei­ther — the fed­eral tu­ition tax credit that be­gan last year ef­fec­tively re­im­burses them for up to $2,000 a year in fees and text­books.

A 2009 re­port by the state Leg­isla­tive An­a­lyst’s Of­fice sug­gested rais­ing fees, but there is al­ways such an emo­tional and ir­ra­tional out­cry that leg­is­la­tors cower. A pro­posal this leg­isla­tive year to raise the fees by $14 a unit — which would still leave the col­leges the sec­ond-best bar­gain in the nation — never even sparked a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion. The re­port also noted that higher fees do not keep stu­dents from en­rolling, but lack of classes does. Com­mu­nity col­lege en­roll­ment has fallen by 200,000 this aca­demic year, which the col­leges at­tribute to the un­avail­abil­ity of classes.

Stu­dents are start­ing to see the folly of overly low fees in a bad econ­omy. A Sept. 9 ed­i­to­rial in the stu­dent news­pa­per at El Camino Col­lege in Tor­rance sug­gests an in­crease. “Ed­u­ca­tion is all we can strive for dur­ing this time,” the ed­i­to­rial board wrote. “We’re will­ing to pay more, we’re will­ing to help pitch in, we just want to save our cam­pus.” Smart kids. Imag­ine what they could ac­com­plish with a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion.

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