Chancellor asks Calif. college to put two-tier plan on hold in wake of protest

Students came to class April 4 amid campus buzz about the pepper spray incident.

The head of California’s community college system on April 4 asked Santa Monica College to put on hold a controversial plan to offer higher-priced courses this summer while the legality of the program is determined.

Chancellor Jack Scott said he made the request in a call to college President Chui L. Tsang, during which he also expressed concern about a student protest in which several people suffered minor injuries when a campus police officer discharged pepper spray at a Board of Trustees meeting April 3.

“No one likes to see something like this happen, and I expressed that it might be wise to put this matter on hold,” Scott said in an interview.

The chancellor contends that Santa Monica’s plan to charge more for some high-demand, core courses such as English, math, and history violates state education codes. Scott has asked the state attorney general to provide an opinion, and he said a response is expected within a week.

Beyond the legal question, Scott said he fears that the plan would shut out students who can’t afford the costs—expected to be about $180 per unit versus $46 per unit for state-subsidized classes.

Under the plan, a nonprofit college foundation would offer about 50 popular classes at full cost, which would supplement about 700 regular state-funded classes. California residents would pay about $540, for example, for a typical three-unit course such as English, while non-residents would pay about $840.

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Santa Monica College officials argue that students who can pay more would be able to enroll in the classes they need to transfer and graduate and that the plan is a necessary response to rising demand and dwindling state funds.

Scott said he was concerned that the program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, would set a precedent that other cash-strapped colleges would follow.

“I do have some sympathy in the sense that the state has not given sufficient funding to community colleges to offer all courses we’d like to offer and that has denied students the education they should have,” Scott said. “But it does seem to be a little out of line with our mission.”

Santa Monica officials contend that their new concept could withstand legal scrutiny but said they are considering the chancellor’s request.

“The president will discuss it with the board to get a sense of where they stand,” said spokesman Bruce Smith. “He listened to what the chancellor had to say but was noncommittal. No decision has been made at this point.”

Earlier in the day, Tsang issued a statement defending the dual program against accusations by many students that it promotes the privatizing of public education.

The trustees discussed the two-tier system April 3 and committed to moving forward despite criticism. But they also vowed to review its successes and failures and said the program is a pilot that might need to be fine-tuned—or even abandoned.