Unlike the often angry responses in recent years to fee increases at UC and CSU, the community college fee hike proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown is being met with little resistance.
In his budget proposal, Brown wants to raise community college fees from $26 to $36 per credit, which for students taking a full load would mean that fees would jump nearly 40 percent from $780 to $1,080 per year [PDF].
"We can live with that," Chancellor Jack Scott told California Watch.
"I understand we are in a bind here," he said, referring to the state's deepening budget crisis.
While he would have liked to see a jump that was "not quite as sharp," Scott said his biggest concern is that with less revenue, community colleges will be forced to accept fewer students, cut classes, and other drastic budget cutting measures.
The fees are expected to generate about $110 million in revenue. But Brown is proposing cutting state support for the community colleges by $400 million, which will result in a net reduction of $290 million in state support.
Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, said levying higher fees in return for $110 million is "unfortunately a reasonable tradeoff."
Like Chancellor Scott, he said he would have preferred a lower amount, and would like to see any fee increase phased in over time in a predictable fashion, and tied to inflation.
"There's no magic number for what the community college student fee should be, but predictability for California's families would be nice."
Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy organization promoting greater student access and success at community colleges, said at least the revenue generated by the fees would be going directly back to the colleges, and that Brown's proposal preserves financial aid to students.
Alex Pader, president of the Student Senate for the 112-college system, said the senate's position has been to oppose all fee increases – and that the state should enforce the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which calls for a completely tuition-free education.
But the Student Senate only meets twice a year, in the fall and the spring. The next meeting will be held on April 1, after the date Brown has indicated he wants the Legislature to have approved the budget. Pader, a student at American River College in Sacramento, said the Student Senate has not yet reacted to Brown's specific proposal, nor does it plan to call an emergency meeting to respond to it before then because of the difficulties of gathering representatives from 112 colleges, he said.
But Reid Milburn, last year's Student Senate president, said students are likely to resent the proposed fee increases, especially because the funds they generate won't restore classes that have been cut, or provide support services that students need to help them complete their classes. "We'll be paying more for less," she said. She said community college students will make their feelings felt at budget hearings in the State Capitol next week.
Mitigating student resistance is likely to be the fact that needy students qualify for fee waivers (although as Milburn points out those don't cover the substantial costs of room and board, books and other living expenses). Last year, the California Community Colleges gave out 1,018,753 fee waivers that totaled $368,243,492.
Students qualify for waivers if they or their families are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or other welfare payments, or if they have incomes of less than 150 percent of federal poverty levels. In a reported issued yesterday, the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that in some cases, students with family incomes of up to $80,000 could qualify for some form of fee assistance. The LAO said that two-thirds of community college students could qualify for a full fee waiver, and 90 percent for some reduction in fees through fee waivers or federal tax credits. (Last year, the system enrolled 2.9 million part-time and full-time students, or 1.3 million full-time equivalent students.)
Mobilizing community college students has always been a challenge, because only one quarter of students attend full time. Most must balance school, work, and in the case of large numbers of older students who are parents, raising children as well. Another reason may be that even with the proposed increase, California community college fees would still be the lowest in the country, several times below the national average of $3,075 per year.
Also, the fee increase could have been even more drastic. The Legislative Analyst's Office continues to recommend increasing fees to $40 per credit. Brown so far has chosen to boost them to $36.
Of course, he could propose higher fees next year – or even this year if voters don't go along with his high risk $12.5 billion tax extension plan at a special election this summer.
To find out about eligibility requirements for a fee waiver, go to this website.