A Two-Tier Plan By Any Other Name?

Michael Sykuta —  21 May 2012

Paul Fain has an interesting update today on the issue of two-tier pricing for California’s community college system. Santa Monica College rocked the boat in March when it announced plans to start using a two-tier pricing schedule that would charge higher tuition rates for high-demand courses.

Santa Monica–and most all community colleges in California apparently–have been slammed with would-be students looking to take classes that would help prepare them for better jobs or for further education and training (that would prepare them for better jobs).  The problem is that state funding for community colleges has been drastically reduced, thereby limiting the number of course offerings schools can offer at the subsidized tuition rate of $36 per credit hour. Santa Monica had the radical idea (well, radical for anyone that fails to understand economics, perhaps) of offering additional sections of high-demand courses, but at full-cost tuition rates (closer to $200 per credit hour).

Students protested. Faculty at other community colleges complained. Santa Monica College relented. So students don’t have to worry about paying more for courses they will not be able to take and faculty at other colleges don’t have to worry about the possibility of more students wanting to go to their schools because the overflow tuition at Santa Monica drives students to find substitutes. Well, that, and no more worries for those faculty at schools who charge even more than $200 for students to get those core courses that they cannot get into at their community college. It didn’t matter much anyhow, since most agreed that Santa Monica College’s proposal would have violated the law.

Now there is a proposal before the California legislature that would allow schools to implement two-tier pricing, but only for technical trade courses, not for high-demand general education-type courses.

Aside from complaints that “the state should be giving away education–even if they are not” (which are the most inane because they have nothing to do with the issue at hand), there are a few other arguments or positions offered that just cause one to scratch one’s head in wonder:

1) Fain reports that Michelle Pilati, president of the Academic Senate of California Community Colleges, asserted that “two-tiered tuition is unfair to lower-income students because it would open up classes to students who have the means to pay much more.” Apparently, Ms. Pilati would prefer all students have equal access to no education than to open up more spaces (to lower-income students) by opening up more spaces to higher-income students at higher prices. Gotcha.

2) The Board of Trustees at San Diego Community College seems to agree, having passed a resolution opposing the proposed legislation because it “would limit or exclude student access based solely on cost, causing inequities in the treatment of students”. Apparently the inequity of some students getting an education and some not is more noble because explicit out-of-pocket costs are not involved and other forms of rationing are used. And yet…

3) According to Fain,  Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University at Sacramento, asserts “wealthier students have a leg up when registering for courses. She said research has found that higher-income students generally have more ‘college knowledge’ that helps them navigate often-complex registration processes. That means wealthier students could more quickly snag spots in classes, getting the normal price, while their lower-income peers would be more likely to pay the higher rates under a two-tiered system.”

So, community colleges have created overly complex registration systems that disadvantage lower-income students. Yet, all that suggests is that the current system already punishes lower-income students because wealthier students can more easily “snag” the limited number of subsidized sections. Perhaps community colleges could make their enrollment processes less complex?

Regardless the fate of the “two-tier pricing” legislation, there is already a two-tier system in place; only the current two-tier plan prevents people from getting educations at any price.