Community college plans to offer two-tier course pricing

Such a dual program appears to be a first for a public institution, but some experts have questioned the legality and equity of the plan.

Faced with deep funding cuts and strong student demand, Santa Monica College in California is pursuing a plan to offer a selection of higher-cost classes to students who need them, provoking protests from some who question the fairness of such a two-tiered education system.

Under the plan, approved by the governing board and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the two-year college would create a nonprofit foundation to offer such in-demand classes as English and math at a cost of about $200 per unit.

Currently, fees are $36 per unit, set by the Legislature for California community college students. That fee will rise to $46 this summer.

The classes would be offered as soon as the upcoming summer and winter sessions; and, if successful, the program could expand to the entire academic year.

The mechanics of the program are still being worked out, but generally the higher-cost classes would become available after state-funded classes fill up. The winter session may offer only the higher-cost classes, officials said.

Students who qualify would be able to use financial aid for the classes, college officials said, but they are also seeking private funds to establish scholarships for needy students.

The 34,000-student Santa Monica campus has one of the highest transfer rates to four-year universities in California and a reputation for innovative programs that are a model for other community colleges. But some say higher-priced classes are tantamount to privatizing the public institution.

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. In the current year, funding was reduced by $11 million. The campus could lose an additional $5 million in the 2012-13 budget year if a tax initiative on the November ballot fails.

And with the budget crisis threatening more class cuts, they argue that this plan provides an interim solution to maintain access for students who need classes to transfer.