Public institutions of higher learning are struggling to fulfill their mission, which is to provide a quality education to all those interested in cracking the books. Severe funding cuts have forced many colleges and universities to reduce the number of classes offered and turn students away.

And there are signs that things are about to get worse.

Cal State University system officials recently announced a plan to freeze enrollment next spring at most campuses and to wait-list all applicants the following fall because of hundreds of millions in funding cuts. If a proposed tax initiative on the November ballot fails to pass we could see even more drastic measures that promise to place added pressure on community colleges to deliver. If students can’t get in to UCLA or Cal State Long Beach, where else are they going to turn? Santa Monica College, with its reputation for being a feeder school to both public and private schools, is the next best option.

Instead of falling into a state of paralysis, hoping that the economy miraculously recovers quickly enough to fill the coffers, officials at SMC have proposed a controversial plan that promises to provide some relief. The plan is to offer a handful of popular courses during the summer at full cost, meaning students would have to cover the entire load — around $600 to $800 — instead of paying the regular rate, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. The courses would pay for themselves, the plan having the potential to free up seats during the school year so that the college can accommodate more students. Instead of having to postpone transferring to a four-year school or graduating because a student doesn’t have that one class they need to move on, the plan would provide them the option of shelling out more to get those coveted credits.

Opponents, including members of the student body, say the plan establishes a two-tier system that disenfranchises those who do not have the cash to cover the more expensive classes. Others say it will set a dangerous precedent in which individual schools set their own price for a public education instead of the Legislature.

The Daily Press believes the proposal is creative and worth considering to see if it is legally possible and if Cal Grants and other financial aid would be made available to ensure that low-income students have an opportunity to get ahead.

There are no signs from SMC officials that this plan is designed to fleece students or that it would be expanded in place of finding other ways to offer lower-cost classes. It is a drastic proposal made during a drastic time to provide another option to those students who are frustrated with not being able to get into the classes they need to transfer or finish their degrees. If students have the ability to afford the classes (which are still cheaper than those offered at private schools like USC) then the college should consider offering them. And as more institutions of higher learning turn students away because of their own budget constraints, community colleges will need to adapt to handle the influx. SMC realizes this and is taking steps to stay ahead of the curve. Let’s not shoot the proposal down before fully studying its possibilities.

Instead of focusing on SMC trustees, those opposed to the plan should direct their anger and frustration at the Legislature and the governor, who are the ones responsible for formulating the budgets that have contributed to the problem. SMC trustees could fire all the administrators and the cost savings still wouldn’t come close to what is needed to restore class offerings to levels seen before the recession. Funding for that must come from Sacramento and that’s where the debate should be centered. If nothing is done, students will continue to suffer, as will the economy as the next generation of innovators is left treading water while they wait for English classes to open up.

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