After millions of dollars in budget cuts over the last few years, Santa Monica College says that help is on the way -- thanks to a controversial new plan to shore up their budget.
The community college will price units for the most sought-after classes at five times the current cost, effectively allowing rich students to get first dibs on enrollment.
Starting this summer and winter semesters, the college will form a separate nonprofit foundation that will offer core courses at about $600 each, or about $200 per unit, the Associated Press reports. Regular courses are currently priced at $108 each, or $36 per unit.
Student government President Harrison Wills told the Huffington Post that he is concerned that students were not a part of this decision. He said that the student organizing committee is planning "something big" to try to stop the new plan.
"We need tax structure reforms that address the real problem here. We can't kick down the can with a Band-Aid solution that helps rich kids," Wills stated. "We need classes that are accessible for everyone. That was the original vision for public education. Anything else is the wrong direction."
As a state community college, SMC's mission is to be as accessible as possible, and schools like it are often the only chance low-income students have to pursue higher education. Opponents say SMC's new system, the first of its kind in the nation, will replace the campus atmosphere of equality with an atmosphere of have's and have-not's.
Proponents and SMC President Dr. Chui Tsang, however, say there is no other way to provide more courses for students who desperately need them. Having faced $10 million in funding cuts in this last year alone, the college has had to lock 230,000 students out of the system, ABC reports. The school has also had to cut more than a thousand courses since 2008, forcing students to sometimes wait years for the courses they need.
Still, opponents fear that the temptation to continue to move towards a free-market, privatized model will only increase, that other community colleges will follow suit and that states will be absolved of the responsibility to fund public higher education. A Los Angeles Times editorial lays out this argument and points to the uncertain legality and equity of the college's decision.
A spokesman for California Community Colleges Chancellor said the plan, which SMC's Board of Trustees approved last week, does not appear to comply with state education codes, and the chancellor may intervene, Business Insider reports.
In response to cries that some community college students barely make ends meet as it is, proponents of the new system say that paying $600 for a course is better than taking loans and amassing debt to attend a for-profit institution. For-profit schools are what some students who can't get the courses they need at community colleges have turned to, according to the Atlantic.
Proponents also reassure that students who qualify for financial aid, such as Cal Grants, will be able to use them towards these more expensive courses. Also, a Los Angeles couple, businessman Daniel Greenberg and his wife, attorney and civic activist Susan Steinhauser, recently donated $250,000 to go towards scholarships for students who cannot afford the new courses on their own, the Times reports.
Still, Wills told HuffPost, he's "skeptical" that low-income students will get the aid they need to make the new courses equally accessible.