Burning Question

Should colleges charge more for popular classes?

A California school comes up with a novel way to avoid overcrowded lecture halls, but some worry that the plan favors the rich

The Great Recession hit California community colleges particularly hard, with spending cuts forcing administrators to cancel hundreds of classes, and the remaining classes growing overcrowded. One school, Santa Monica College, has concocted an innovative way to ease the jam in lecture halls without going deeper in the red: A two-tiered fee system, to be introduced this summer, that will charge the school's 34,000 students extra to enroll in the most popular courses. If the gambit works, other colleges might follow suit. But is this fair? Here, a brief guide to this controversial new policy:

Are classes really so crowded?Yes. As cash-strapped community colleges cancel classes, many courses that students need — to meet job-training requirements or to let them transfer to a university — tend to fill up quickly, leaving late-comers in the cold. Enrollment at California community colleges has fallen by 300,000 students, to 2.6 million, since 2009, and, according to The New York Times, the difficulty of registering for essential classes is a key factor.

How much will popular classes cost now?Santa Monica College currently charges $36 per credit hour for all of its courses. Under the new plan, summer classes that tend to fill up quickly will cost $180 per credit hour. In the short winter term, which many of the state's community colleges have dropped altogether, all courses will cost $180 per credit hour. The college says the hiked fees will let it offer enough summer and winter courses to meet demand, easing overcrowding during the fall and spring semesters, when all classes will be offered at the lower price, at least for now.

Is the new policy unfair?It depends who you ask. Community colleges are less expensive than four-year institutions, and are often seen as a vital resource for poor students, immigrants, and anyone who needs to improve their skills or grades before applying to a university. The new fees will be too steep for some students, says Vanessa Barajas at the Santa Monica College Corsair. They may have to drop out, or make "the life-stalling decision" to delay school. Education is supposed to be open to all, not an "elite privilege." Actually, "this system will help all students," says Ayan Kusari at the University of California, San Diego Guardian. Those who can afford the more expensive classes will take them, lowering demand for the more affordable courses. "This will shorten wait lists, open up seats, and speed up the graduation process for the entire campus."

How are students reacting?Angrily, in many cases. Just this week, some 30 Santa Monica protesters were pepper-sprayed when students tried to storm a meeting of the school's trustee board, chanting, "No cuts, no fees, education should be free."Sources: The Corsair, The (UCSD) Guardian, MSNBC, New York Times

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