Santa Monica College students walk to their classes on Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMC — A state bill with roots in Santa Monica would overhaul the way community colleges pay for some classes in an effort to increase course offerings.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) is carrying a bill co-authored with Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) and sponsored by both Santa Monica College and College of the Canyons that would allow community colleges to offer extra, for-credit courses providing that students shoulder the entire cost of the course.

The bill would allow California’s community colleges, which have lost state funding to the tune of $1 billion over the past three years, to offer more courses without asking the state for extra money.

“The classes are equivalent to the classes that are state-funded,” said Don Girard, senior director of government affairs and institutional communications at SMC. “They would have the same faculty, coursework, credits, transcripts — everything.”

The difference is that one class might cost $36 per unit, while an identical course could cost between $150 and $175 on average if it’s being offered as an “extension course” under the Brownley bill.

That’s because the students would be paying the entire cost of the class, including faculty salaries, materials and support services like libraries and computer labs.

The system would allow colleges that have cut back sections on basic courses to add them back in so students that need courses to graduate, transfer to other colleges or get vocational certifications could get them.

Students that use Pell grants and Cal grants could use that money to pay for the higher priced classes, and schools could take the option to waive fees for students altogether, Brownley said.

“I’m carrying the bill because I believe that it is a small solution to provide access to students that otherwise don’t have access to community college now,” Brownley said. “Because of budget cuts made across the board to all higher education segments, community colleges up and down the state have not been able to provide as many classes as they’d like to.”

According to an analysis by the California Community College’s Chancellor’s Office, the most recent cuts in Gov. Jerry Brown’s newly-revised budget would total $290 billion and cause approximately 140,000 students to lose access to classes.

Each district would make its own decisions on which courses to supplement or add in as extension courses.

If the bill becomes law, SMC would use it first to offer winter session classes that have been impacted by state-imposed workload reductions, Girard said.

Several teachers’ organizations have come out against the bill, objecting to what they see as a “two-tiered” system that pitches wealthier students against low-income students.

“We do not want what would essentially amount to private or for-profit colleges within our colleges, providing easy access to those able to pay more than $200 per unit,” wrote the American Teachers Federation’s local 2121, based in San Francisco, in a release.

Brownley protests that the bill would actually prevent students from going to the more-expensive for-profit colleges, which can charge upwards of $300 and $400 per unit.

“(Students) are using Pell and Cal grants to go to these for-profit institutions. For example, 60 percent of new Cal grant money is being utilized in those for-profit institutions,” Brownley said. “I believe community colleges are better, and of higher quality than for-profit. I want them to get their coursework at a community college, and bring those financial aid packages to the public institutions.”

That would not only save students money, it would save teachers’ jobs, she added.

The bill made it through the Assembly appropriations committee and the higher education commission. It goes next to the full Assembly.


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