As Long Beach City College officials see it, a state plan allowing two-year schools to charge more for high-demand classes would help move students more quickly toward transfer and graduation.
Students at the campus, however, argue that such a move would be unfair, and they have launched a statewide petition drive and video campaign to block the legislation.
"Long Beach City College has one of the largest populations of poor students in the state," said Andrea Donado, the student trustee in the Long Beach Community College District. "This bill will create two classes of students, those who can pay and finish and those who can't. It's not the mission of a community college to be like a private college."
Legislation that has passed both the state Senate and Assembly would create a pilot project allowing colleges to charge all students non-resident tuition — as much as $200 per unit — for high-demand classes during summer and winter terms. Those classes include transfer-level English, algebra and history, which typically have long waiting lists.
The bill is on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown; a spokesman said Brown would not comment on pending legislation.
"This gives our college one more tool to use to open up access to courses in high demand and will materially impact the ability of students to transfer and get a higher degree," said Long Beach City College President Eloy Oakley.
The controversy is a replay in many respects of an attempt by Santa Monica College last year to offer high-priced core classes in a summer extension program alongside regular state-funded courses. The effort was abandoned after the statewide community college chancellor said it violated education codes. The proposal roiled the campus; student protesters were pepper-sprayed at a college board meeting.
The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), has also created friction between traditional allies and threatens to upend decades of open enrollment policy.
It's unclear, however, whether the project would get off the ground, even if approved. The legislation says the program is voluntary, but its intent is that six specified campuses should offer the courses by July.
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Two of the campuses, Oxnard College and Pasadena City College, however, said that they were unwilling draftees and that they have no intention of participating. Solano College in Fairfield and College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita are ineligible to participate immediately because they had not met enrollment requirements, the chancellor's office said.
Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa wants to hear from students and faculty before deciding, a spokeswoman said. Only Oakley in Long Beach said he was ready to move forward, possibly as soon as January.
Williams said that students willing to pay the higher fees would be able to get classes needed to transfer or graduate, opening up space during the regular academic year for students who would still pay the current fees of $46 per unit. He pointed to the example of California State University campuses that offer summer extension programs without problems.
"I believe students should be able to make the choice for themselves and don't believe faculty or other students have the right to say they can't take these classes," Williams said.
Supporters say the two-tier plan is also justified as a way to repair years of enrollment and class cuts precipitated by severe budget shortfalls.
"Community colleges are supposed to be open access for everybody, but it's hard to say it's anything like that when we're turning away thousands of students," said Michael Kramer, former student government president at College of the Canyons. "More students might be able to keep what's supposed to be a two-year education closer to two years."
But opponents question the need for such a drastic policy shift.
The California community college chancellor's office recently reported that most of the state's 112 schools are increasing enrollment and adding classes this fall after an infusion of funding from Proposition 30, Brown's measure that temporarily raised some taxes for education and other purposes.
Many students in the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, the largest in the state, would be at a disadvantage, officials said.
"The vast majority are on some form of financial aid or receive scholarship assistance," said Adriana Barrera, the district's interim chancellor. "We have a student population that's scraping for every penny, and the economics of having to pay $1,000 for a single course would be beyond their ability to even contemplate."
The pilot program would require a third of the fees collected by districts to be set aside for financial aid, and the program would end in 2018. But many on both sides see the legislation as a door that once opened would not be easily closed.
At a meeting of the community college Board of Governors recently, Chancellor Brice W. Harris called the bill "horrible" public policy. The measure would be a public betrayal after educators worked to pass Proposition 30 with the promise of no new fee increases, he added.
"And now here we are with a bill that would create a 200% fee increase on some students," Harris said. "It would provide some students with access to the highway of education who have money and leave some students behind."