Students Pepper-Sprayed for Wanting to Attend a Community College

This is a guest post by Lenore Beaky, a member of the AAUP Committee on Community Colleges.

“Santa Monica College—The Shape of Things to Come, or The Future That’s Already Arrived?”

What happened at Santa Monica College this spring embodies many of the most urgent threats and challenges facing community colleges in the United States now: vanishing government support, escalating tuition, pressures to limit access, proposals to privatize, competition from for-profit outfits, and anger and resistance from students.

On March 13, 2012, the Board of Trustees of Santa Monica College approved a plan to offer certain “high demand” courses in English and math for about $200 per credit for the summer and winter sessions. (Statewide tuition for courses at all California community colleges was then $36 per credit or $108 for a three-credit course; this rose to $46 per credit or $138 per course as of this summer.) According to the proposal, Santa Monica would establish a separate, nonprofit foundation to run these courses. For the new courses, tuition would pay for faculty salaries; the courses would be made available to students who could afford to pay; a scholarship fund would aid students unable to afford the $200 tuition. (A donation of $250,000 had just been obtained, to be used for student financial aid.) These courses would be opened up only after the courses at regular tuition levels had filled, it was explained.

Other than the differing levels of tuition, the courses would be identical, and would be the courses most needed by students and most likely to be filled—English, math, writing, and science. It was thought that this kind of differential tuition for identical courses would be the first of its kind in the nation—and at a community college!

Reaction was not long in coming. Community Colleges chancellor Jack Scott did not think the plan was legal, because all California public higher education tuition is established statewide. Students showed up at the next board of trustees’ meeting and when they tried to enter the small meeting room in numbers too great to accommodate them, they were pepper-sprayed by police. (Five students were hospitalized and a child was sprayed.) The Santa Monica College Faculty Association opposed the plan. Lantz Simpson, member of the AAUP Community College Committee, has written critically of the plan.   Trustees, many of whom consider themselves and their proposal to be progressive, were dismayed by the criticisms. However, the board and the college, along with its president, Chui L. Tsang, acceded to the chancellor’s opinion that the program was illegal, and agreed to postpone imposition of the higher tuition.

If you’ve followed the news from California in recent years, you can imagine why this measure was proposed. Since 2008, California community colleges have lost $809 million in state funding, and 200,000 students have been turned away. At Santa Monica in that period, 1,100 classes have been cancelled and the college has lost 35,000 students and 13 percent of its funding. For the next fiscal year, the state’s deficit is projected to be $15.7 billion. If a proposed tax referendum is not passed in November, more cuts will follow, possibly eliminating entire colleges.

As it happens, differential tuitions are not uncommon in the US but they are usually imposed for particular courses, curricula, and programs. And even public community colleges are adopting private funding practices. The president of the Community College of Philadelphia recently described the extent to which his college has detached itself from state regulations and attached itself to private funding. The UCLA academic senate has just approved the proposal of its MBA program to forego public funding altogether in order to free itself from state regulations. In order to allow the differential tuition at community colleges that was attempted at Santa Monica, a state law has now been proposed that would establish a pilot program for five community colleges to set differential tuitions for credit courses.

Santa Monica College is the largest community college in California. It currently has 34,000 students and one of the largest transfer programs in the state (it is a feeder school for UCLA and USC). But despite its glamorous environment, over 60 percent of its student body consists of students of color: Latino, Asian, and black. Students sit on the floor in oversubscribed classes. Faculty are teaching courses with student enrollments beyond what is allowed.

Stay tuned. The Santa Monica story is not over.

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