Flickr photo by Ed Yourdon
A move to increase the fees that California Community College students pay from $26 per unit to $40 per unit is getting some support in lawmakers' budget discussions.
Unlike costs to attend UC and CSU campuses, the fees at California's 112 community colleges have managed to resist dramatic hikes. This makes California's two-year colleges the most affordable in the nation, according to the College Board's annual Trends in College Pricing report. The second most affordable state is New Mexico.
The state Legislative Analyst's Office is recommending a 54 percent fee hike to $40 per unit – an increase that would still maintain the state's position as the least expensive, the LAO says.
Sen. Bob Huff, R-Walnut, made a motion during the state legislature's budget conference committee to implement the $40 fee. While the issue was not resolved in the committee, lawmakers may negotiate some sort of fee increase once they get the full picture of state funding for community colleges, said Paul Steenhausen, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst's Office.
In its support for the fee increase, the LAO has pointed out the increase would bring in about $150 million in revenue for the college system, based on a conservative estimate. The analysts have recommended that the system use the increased fees to fund enrollment growth, rather than increase Proposition 98 funding, as the governor's budget has proposed.
The governor's revised budget actually provides about $126 million in new Prop. 98 funding for enrollment growth. But if it turns out the state can't afford that, the student fees could fill in the gap, Steenhausen said. If the state can afford the enrollment growth money, then the extra fee revenue could be used for even more enrollment and support services, he said.
Students with financial need would still be eligible for a waiver that covers the cost of fees, as they are now. Middle-class students could apply for federal tax credits that would cover all or nearly all of the fees. And upper-class students would still enjoy the cheapest rates in the nation.
"This is not like we're throwing people to the wolves here," Huff said.
Scott Lay, president and chief executive officer of the Community College League of California in Sacramento, said an increase in student fees may have to be part of the budget solution, but that the LAO's proposal was misguided.
"The LAO used it as an opportunity to go on a tirade as to why students should pay more," he said. "I don't think we're prepared to sign on to student fees purely for enrollment growth right now."
The LAO points out that low-income students can apply for a fee waiver, but Lay questioned whether all needy students would find out about their eligibility for a waiver.
One interesting wrinkle is the matter of the federal tax credits. Several different programs allow taxpayers to write off portions of their educational expenses. The most generous program provides a tax rebate of up to $2,500 including fees and books – a figure that would more than cover a year's worth of study at a California Community College, even with the proposed fee increase.
But the reality is that few students take advantage of the refund. According to data from the California Student Aid Commission, only 10 percent of California Community College students in the 2006 tax year claimed the Hope or Lifetime Learning tax credits.
Steenhausen described that statistic as "a great source of irritation for this office." Often, advisrs who work with students focus primarily on the board of governors waiver form - an easy, quick way for needy students to get out of paying the course fees. But students are less informed about the free Federal Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) and the tax credits.