All eyes are on Santa Monica College, where a controversial plan to offer a tier of higher-priced courses has been met with pepper-spray-tainted protests and legal questions.
Less noticeably, California State University officials have been mulling their own brand of higher-priced classes. In 2010, officials began exploring whether they could offer more remediation classes and high-demand "bottleneck" classes through Extended Education – a self-supporting program that provides online and face-to-face CSU classes to students without the university admissions process.
Because it operates without state subsidies, Extended Education offers classes that are pricier than the standard CSU fare, and students can't use Cal Grants or CSU State University Grants to help pay for them.
Prices for Extended Education classes vary. But in 2009-10, the average annual tuition for an Extended Education undergraduate degree completion program was $7,290 – about 51 percent higher than the $4,827 average annual tuition at CSU at that time, according to a CSU report [PDF].
In their 2010 presentation to the CSU Board of Trustees, Executive Vice Chancellor Ephraim Smith and State University Dean of Extended Education Sheila Thomas said that by offering English and math remediation, bottleneck courses, and other classes through Extended Education, CSU could meet its academic mission while "freeing up resources on the state support side that could be re-deployed to critical areas."
As for the higher cost of the offerings, the report described Extended Education prices as affordable when compared with the classes offered by a comparison group of for-profit colleges, which had an average annual tuition of $13,082 in 2009-10.
"For many students, it is the access to these programs – both at the CSU and at private or for-profit institutions – that can outweigh the higher cost," the report said. "In these challenging fiscal times it is critical to review potential avenues of expansion for Extended Education to meet the needs of CSU students and working professionals."
The idea has similar characteristics to the proposal at Santa Monica College, where the board of trustees this week approved a plan to offer a set of high-demand classes such as English and math at about $200 per unit, rather than the standard community college price of $36 per unit. The idea is that students who find themselves shut out of the limited state-subsidized classes have the option of paying a premium for a spot.
Bret Hartman/ReutersSanta Monica College students march through campus this week protesting higher tuition prices for some courses and a pepper spray incident during another protest.
Santa Monica College has seen a backlash. Students protested this week, and some were injured after a campus police officer discharged pepper spray. California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott has questioned the legality of the college's plan and has asked trustees to put it on hold, the Los Angeles Times reports.
At CSU, where the university has seen a steady decrease in state revenue and has had to cut thousands of courses and reduce faculty and staff, students already have turned increasingly to Extended Education for the higher-priced classes, data shows.
At some campuses, the programs are more widely used. About 11 percent of CSU Dominguez Hills students took Extended Education courses in fall 2010. The campus' Open University [PDF] catalog of Extended Education courses includes hundreds of classes, from accounting to women's studies.
The California Faculty Association has criticized CSU officials' move toward expanding Extended Education, describing it as a "for-profitization" of the university.
"The price of doing that is to profoundly change the mission of these institutions, to have them begin to resemble more and more for-profit entities, where money talks and if you have the money, you’re in," said Susan Meisenhelder, professor emeritus of English at CSU San Bernardino and former president of the faculty association.
In the fall 2010 report, CSU officials observed that in order to expand Extended Education on a large scale – particularly online – they would need to amend collective bargaining agreements, executive orders and potentially state Education Code.
Faculty association representatives, now in the midst of negotiating their contract with CSU, said the university recently has proposed taking away certain pay guarantees for faculty members who teach Extended Education courses – a signal, they say, that the university is clearing the way to expand the program.
Meanwhile, CSU recently posted a request for proposals for Cal State Online, seeking firms that provide online education to help roll out an increased assortment of online classes. Those courses are planned to be offered through Extended Education, said CSU spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp.
Although a May 2011 report [PDF] by consulting firm Richard N. Katz & Associates Inc. said bottleneck courses could be good candidates for the Cal State Online initiative, an open letter [PDF] from Ruth Claire Black, executive director of the Cal State Online Board, said the initiative will start with the roughly 60 online self-support programs that currently exist in the CSU system. Most of those are aimed at working professionals or unemployed adults.
Uhlenkamp said nothing has been decided as far as expanding Extended Education to add more bottleneck and remedial courses.
"There haven’t been decisions made," he said. "We need to review what we currently do and review the climate that we’re in."
That hasn't stopped the faculty union from trying to head off future moves. Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, D-El Segundo, introduced a bill sponsored by the California Faculty Association that would allow CSU students who take Extended Education courses for credit toward a degree to pay no more than the fees charged for any other academic term.