Community college plans to offer two-tier course pricing

The courses, which would be taught by campus faculty, would supplement rather than supplant regular course offerings and increase access for students who otherwise would be turned away, said Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang.

“Our classes are inundated with students begging to be enrolled after they’re full,” Tsang said. “We’ve had people from the community asking us if we can open up more courses. The alternative is that students can wait and try their luck next semester or go outside to a more expensive private or for-profit college.”

Such a dual program appears to be a first for a public institution, experts said.

“It shows some attempt to be innovative,” said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “At a four-year school it might turn some heads, but it makes sense at a community college level, where the tuition is low and the capacity issue is especially acute.”

But other academic experts have questioned the legality, equity and practicality of the plan.

Paul Feist, a spokesman for California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott, said the plan does not appear to comply with state education codes, which have been interpreted to permit employers to offer contract courses to fill specific needs.

Moreover, state law does not appear to allow students to be charged differential fees for the types of courses Santa Monica envisions offering, Feist said.

No decision has been made on whether the chancellor will intervene, he said.

A bill, supported by Santa Monica College, that would have allowed all community colleges in California to maintain extension programs offering credit courses—for higher fees—failed to advance in the state Senate last year.

Tsang cited the example of some K-12 school districts such as Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, which offers fee-based summer school “get-ahead” classes, as a precedent.

Trustee Nancy Greenstein said the college believes it is on solid legal ground but acknowledged risks regarding the plan’s success.

Many students said they view the board’s action as a move toward privatizing programs while relieving the state of its responsibility to adequately fund public higher education.

“It’s creating a two-tiered system of wealthier students who can afford classes and struggling working-class and low-income students competing for the scraps of what’s left; it’s definitely a move in the wrong direction,” said student government President Harrison Wills.