A two-tiered pricing system would create dramatic inequality of access to a college education.
A college education is believed to help those that sacrifice and pursue their education achieve a better life. However, the graduating class of 2014 is the most indebted class in history. Students will graduate this year owing an average of $33,000 for their hard earned education. This problem grows worse as students currently face rising levels of tuition at all institutions.
My school, San Bernardino Valley Community College, looked at a different type of tuition increase by volunteering as one of five colleges to pilot a two-tiered pricing system, which effectively gives an advantage to higher income students. Assembly Bill AB955 set up a pilot program of five schools to offer classes at higher prices during intermissions from the standard academic schedule, making students who want to finish school faster pay more out of pocket for their degree. Assembly Member Das Williams, who proposed the bill, argued in The Daily Californian that “at the start of the fall 2012 semester, more than 500,000 students were left on waiting lists and effectively turned away at community colleges throughout the state due to lack of availability.” If the pilot is successful, then the program will open to all colleges state wide.
My school volunteered to participate in this pilot, because following the 2008 recession, budget cuts had forced the school to cut many classes. The administration needed a way to accommodate students that couldn’t get classes they needed in order to transfer or graduate. Many administrators were for the program because they believed they could make more space by offering classes in summer and winter sessions to students that would have to pay up to 300 percent more per unit. For instance, our normal tuition is $46 a unit, but in order to take the classes offered by this program students would have to pay an additional $230 non-resident tuition fee and a $19 capital outlay fee, totaling $295 per unit. Since most classes are three units, a class under this pricing model would cost $885 as opposed to the usual price of $138.
Many students were opposed to this legislation. A student protest staged on November 14, 2013 at a meeting of the San Bernardino Community College District Board paused the offering of such a two-tiered pricing scheme for this summer, and the future of the program will be decided at a later date. A huge group of students spoke out against our school’s participation by organizing and using our voices to tell our college board we wouldn’t allow our school to be privatized. There was no evidence for the assemblyman’s conclusions. He claimed students would prefer the opportunity to finish faster at a higher cost, as opposed to waiting and using needed financial aid to finish their classes. There are almost 15,000 students attending San Bernardino Valley Community College, and 67 percent of the student body receives financial assistance. It is unlikely that students will be willing or able to pay out of pocket for their education, when these higher-priced classes aren’t covered by financial aid.
Students also opposed the bill because the argument that students could transfer out faster was untrue. Under the usual model of one low tuition rate for all units, many students take classes year round. With the two-tier pricing model, students that can’t afford to pay the grossly inflated price of units in winter and summer would be limited to classes in fall and spring, essentially making poorer students stay at a community college longer than their wealthier peers. Students were also concerned about how students paying full-price for these more expensive units would affect financial aid. There were also concerns that when policy makers saw students paying the higher prices, financial assistance given to other students would be at risk of defunding, ending access for those less fortunate.
Access to college is meant to be a vehicle to success for those willing to work hard for it. This program would be asking students that have very little to pay more for school in the long run. Students’ passion against this new law can be a great benefit for implementing change. There is always a beginning of a movement but what actually makes it a movement is the consistency to keep coming back and addressing the issues. The students at my school understand that the effort they showed can be a force. We can have a bright future by fighting for future students, who deserve the same chance those before us received. It would be a shame to stand idly by while students lose their opportunity for an education and a better life.
Mohanned Abdelhameed is the Vice President of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network chapter at San Bernardino Valley Community College, where he is studying political economics.