Could You Be Affected by the Two-Tier Tuition System?

It's no secret that public institutions of higher education are starting to sweat a bit under economic strain caused by state and federal budget cuts. But one community college in Santa Monica, California came up with a radical - and ultimately disastrous - plan that should serve as an example for how not to handle budgetary constraints.

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By Sarah Wright

santa monica college SMC two-tiered tuition student protest pepper spray

Santa Monica College's Two-Tier Trouble

If you follow the news even a little bit, you're probably aware that college students across the U.S. have been protesting quite a bit lately. Mostly, these protests have focused on financial issues relating to education, though in some cases the demonstrations have called attention to broader issues. Most recently, students have been protesting a radical new two-tier tuition plan at California's Santa Monica College. The plan, believed to be the first of its kind, would put in-demand classes at a higher tuition tier than other, less popular courses.

The justification for the plan is that demand has begun to far outstrip supply for popular and widely required courses in subjects like English, writing, science and math. Ordinarily, courses cost about $36 per credit hour, but the new system would price premium courses at a staggering $180 per credit hour. That's no small difference, and understandably, students were quite upset when the plan was first proposed. Santa Monica College students took to protesting in order to make their displeasure known. Unfortunately, the response to the protest got out of hand, with pepper spray and other tactics being used to the point that a small number of students were hospitalized in early April.

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Controversy and Backpedaling

The publicity generated by these protests kicked off a bout of backpedaling by college authorities. The campus police were responsible for the pepper-spraying incident on April 5, which was a response to student protesters crashing a meeting of the school's Board of Trustees. Though college president Dr. Chui Tsang initially supported the officers responsible, he eventually announced a 'full investigation' of the incident. Additionally, he said that the college would reimburse students for medical bills for injuries suffered during the incident. In the aftermath, Santa Monica College's trustees called an emergency meeting to discuss the plan.

Many of the plan's original critics pointed to how inherently unfair it is to put popular classes at a financial premium - a plan that's particularly unexpected at a community college. But after the April 5 trustees' meeting, California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott asked the college's administration to hold off on implementing the plan, citing the potential illegality of such a system. And indeed, at their emergency meeting on April 6, the trustees scrapped the plan. It's a good thing, too, not only due to the controversy, but also because the California attorney general's office announced that such two-tiered systems are illegal in that state.

Could It Happen Again?

So should you, the college student, be worried about this type of a plan being implemented in your school? In a word, I'd describe Santa Monica College's attempt to implement a two-tier tuition system as a disaster. The school received plenty of negative attention, and their plan was called out by top state legal officials as being illegal. That's hardly a strong endorsement for other colleges to attempt to do the same. Still, in such trying economic times, leaders at educational institutions are having to get creative. Hopefully, though, the creativity will focus less on creating an unfair system for students who are already likely struggling to pay for school.

Santa Monica College isn't the only institution seeking radical solutions to its budget problems. Some public universities are even considering going private.

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