Attorney General Office Opines Santa Monica College Tuition Proposal Maybe Illegal

Tuesday, 1 May 2012, 12:41:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

All the hoopla surrounding Santa Monica College’s (SMC) proposed tiered-tuition system may have been for naught, as the California Attorney General’s office chimed in with its two cents that such a plan would expose the school to legal action.

A statement released by California Community College Chancellor Jake Scott’s office stated that SMC must hold off on moving forward with any proposed iterations of a multiple-tiered tuition plan.

“Santa Monica Community College District trustees and President (Chui L.) Tsang have my respect and appreciation for their decision to hold off on plans to institute a dual fee system for courses in high demand,” Scott wrote in a statement. “Although I disagreed with the proposal, I cannot fault college leaders for searching for new approaches to serve students hungry for the opportunity to receive a college education.”

According to the Attorney General, the policy violated the California Education Code, providing an opening salvo in what could be a tough legal battle should SMC decide to reprise the tiered-tuition proposal.

However, SMC spokesman Bruce Smith issued a statement on behalf of the college, stating it “ has not received any communication from the State Attorney General’s Office or the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.”

“We look forward to them sharing their legal analysis with the College. We also look forward to continuing the dialogue with the Chancellor’s Office on ways community colleges can increase student access at a time of devastating state budget cuts,” the statement continued.

Prior to SMC’s spring break, the school’s Board of Trustees had proposed a two-tiered tuition system where students would pay a higher cost for “impacted” courses offered there for the upcoming summer and winter sessions. The proposed tuition rate would apply to SMC’s high-demand courses potentially offered in the summer and winter sessions.

“In March 2012 the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees passed an initiative to have a nonprofit foundation offer some high-demand core classes such as math and English at a higher price during the summer and winter sessions alongside the same state-funded courses,” the Chancellor’s office stated.

Students attending California’s community colleges will face an increase to $46 per credit unit for classes offered this summer.

“The Santa Monica College two-tier plan would offer a 3-unit class such as English 1A at the state-funded amount of $138 in addition to the same student-subsidized course offered for $540,” the Chancellor’s office continued.

The proposed tiered-tuition policy was the subject of great debate between SMC students and school administrators. SMC officials went on record arguing the tiered-tuition policy would actually ease enrollment demands of certain popular or required classes if certain students were willing to pay the higher price tag.

Students, however, countered such a tuition policy would establish a rich versus poor system at SMC, where only a select few could afford to pay the non-subsidized credit rate.

Under the proposed plan, about 50 classes would have been offered under a non-profit organization created by SMC. Students would pay approximately $180 per unit for classes offered in subjects of accounting, astronomy, English composition and psychology, among others. For a three-unit course, tuition alone would top $540 under the proposed plan; non-resident tuition would be significantly higher, at about $840 for a three-unit course.

Many courses – about 700 – would still be offered at the state-subsidized tuition rate of $46 per unit.

A student rally against the proposal after a Board of Trustees meeting on April 3 turned nasty when some protesters were hospitalized after being pepper-sprayed by law enforcement.

On April 6, an emergency meeting of the SMC Board of Trustees convened and board members unanimously voted to put off the controversial tuition plan.

The Attorney General became involved when Scott’s office reached out to Harris for a second opinion.

“The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office believes the two-tier fee program is not permissible under the California Education Code and has asked the California Attorney General’s Office for advice,” a statement issued by Scott’s office said.

According to the Chancellor’s office, SMC “developed the two-tier plan in response to the deep cuts the California Community Colleges have suffered the last several years.”

Since 2008, more than $800 million –or 12 percent – of funding has been cut from the community college system. The funding cuts have translated, the Chancellor’s office pointed out, into a 15 percent reduction in courses offered at community colleges statewide. Further, since 2009, community college enrollment has dropped by about 300,000 across the board.

“The decline is directly attributed to the state’s disinvestment in higher education because students simply cannot get into the classes they need to achieve their educational goals,” the Chancellor’s office stated.

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