In March, for the second year in a row, thousands of California’s community college students gathered at the Capitol to express their displeasure with the governor’s decision to raise their tuition. The measure that raised tuition under Grey Davis in 2003 passed, effectively increasing their per credit fee to $18, up 63 percent from what they were paying previously. One of the reasons this year’s march on the Capitol attracted fewer students may be because while the previous tuition increase was to their detriment (the additional money did not go back into the community college system), Schwarzenegger’s proposed increase will accompany an increase in funds being returned to the community colleges.
Over 1.6 million students attend a California Community College (CCC), more than three times as many as are served by the UC and CSU systems combined. The relatively low-cost and convenience of the CCC have combined to make it the only option for many of its students, and yet its affordability and convenience have been all but ignored by lawmakers for years. In fact, between 1999 and 2000, California community colleges ranked 45 out of 49 states in per student revenue, under the national average by a whopping 23 percent.
As California’s other branches of higher education are being publicly scrutinized and reformed to the benefit of their students, CCC is being deprived of the benefits enjoyed by the others. For example, between 1971 and 2001, real revenue per student for California’s UC system grew by 23 percent, and 24 percent for the CSU system. In that same time, the community colleges saw only a four percent increase.
But the other colleges aren’t the only ones benefiting from the pool of money that’s not finding its way to CCC. In 2001-2002, K-12 schools received an enormous 44 percent more funding per student from state and local sources than did CCC. What’s more, the K-12 schools collect money from Proposition 98 funds that were guaranteed to CCC back in 1988. Since that proposition passed, California legislature has suspended the guarantee to CCC that they should obtain 10.9 percent of the Proposition 98 funds, electing instead to send all the money to the K-12 schools.
According to Patrick J. Murphy, author of Financing California’s Community Colleges, there are two ways to insure that CCC will be able to meet its financial obligations in the future. The first is to persuade legislature to fund CCC at the level promised following the passage of Proposition 98. The second, and likely less attractive way to those reading this, is to raise community college tuition.
California’s 1.6 million community college students pay less than any other students in the nation for their tuition, despite the state budgets’ raising CCC tuition by 63 percent to $18 per unit. Even with that additional 63 percent increase, tuition accounts for only 5 percent of CCC total system revenue. And even if tuition was doubled again this year, it would still fall well below the national average.
As unappealing as a tuition increase sounds to students, there are many possible upsides as well. As it stands, tuition at CCC is so low that students aren’t eligible for Pell Grants and the Hope scholarship tax credit. Many students may not feel the burden of increased tuition, as they would become eligible for federal aid that they couldn’t receive previously, and many students already receive a fee waiver from the Board of Governors. Murphy also suggests that a portion of the new CCC revenue be directed towards financial aid, to lessen the effects of the increase on a wider spectrum of students.