LAO: raise community college fees

The Legislative Analyst is proposing that the Legislature raise fees at community colleges by $14 per credit – more than 50 percent from the current $26 per credit (which, in turn was raised last year from $20). It sounds like a whopper, but many  students wouldn’t pay it because of fee waivers for low-income families and new federal income tax credits for the middle class. However, the increase would provide $150 million to the system at a time when enrollments statewide have been falling because many colleges have significantly cut the number of sections they’ve been offering, shutting students out of courses that they need.

Even at $40 – $1,200 for a student taking a fulltime load of 30 credits – fees would remain the lowest in America.

The recommendation is included in the LAO’s higher education budget analysis, which notes that, compared with K-12, early childhood education and non-education programs, higher ed would do well under Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal ­– considering the state faces an 18-month, $19 billion deficit.

The LAO, which doesn’t advocate higher taxes or assume that the governor and legislators will approve one, recommends giving the California University and California State University systems  $300 million less than the $800 million in additional General Fund spending that Schwarzenegger is calling for. Even with that recommended cut, UC and CSU would still get a combined $8.54 billion – an extra 13 percent or $1.1 billion more than last year, primarily because of large  increases in student fees.

State funding for the underfunded community college system was cut $436 million last year – 10 percent. Although the governor claims to propose a 4 percent increase next year, the LAO says it’s really closer to 1 percent after factoring in accounting moves.

Unlike the  CSU and UC, which have cut enrollments, the community colleges  are required to have open enrollment. Chancellor Jack Scott said that even with a projected 1 percent decline in enrollment – 21,000 –  this year, the system is trying to accommodate 200,000 unfunded students. Colleges on average eliminated 5 percent of course section this year, leaving students systemwide scrambling for credits. Many have been forced to take courses they don’t need to carry enough credits for financial aid, or to postpone graduation.

Many families not see higher fees

The LAO, along with other analysts, have called for higher community college fees before. The timing isn’t good, with high unemployment, but the Board of Governor waives fees for some families earning up to $80,000 and the new federal American Opportunity Tax Credit covers up to $2,000 in tuition and other expenses for families earning up to $160,000 – enough to cover the $14 per credit increase that the LAO is suggesting and leave $800 for textbooks. The extra $150 million in revenue would cover 26,000 of currently unfunded students.

State funding for the CSU and UC campuses has fallen 20 percent since 2007-08. As a result, system trustees have raised  fees $2,200 or 36 percent since the fall of 2006 for UC students and $1,500 or 60 percent for CSU students, although they still remain below the national average for comparable institutions. The goal this year should be to bring total support, through state funding and student fees, to the 2007-08 level, the LAO said.

In another area of disagreement with the governor, the LAO urges continuing competitive Cal Grants, which generally go to older students, most of whom attend community colleges. Schwarzenegger proposes suspending the program, which serves 17,000 students

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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