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California Educators Hail 25 Percent Drop in Community College Fees

Earlier this month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed off on a bill cutting enrollment fees at the state’s 109 community college campuses by around 25 percent. The measure will decrease community college fees from $26 per unit to $20 per unit for courses beginning after Jan. 1, 2007.

The drop in community college fees comes after years of dramatic increases — fees last year went from $18 per unit to $26 — which led to systemwide drops in enrollment and roiled educators across the state.

According to Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, the system lost 175,000 students when it raised fees from $11 to $18. The increase to $26 raised $90 million, but he says it also cost the system another 125,000 students.

“We have always been against fees, we think that they’re very short-sighted. The California community college system is set up as the greatest experiment in higher education democracy in the country, if not the world,” he says. Relying on fee increases to earn money is foolish, Lightman adds, because once the students have received an education, their increased earning potential will create much more income from tax revenue.

The drop in fees was met with praise from community colleges throughout the state. Ron Owens, spokesperson for Dr. Mark Drummond, chancellor of the system, says, “The legislature and the governor saw that the fees were increased in recent years, and they wanted to give students — whether low-income, under-represented students or regular students — a financial break.”

Dr. Christopher O’Hearn, president of Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., applauds the decrease. “It will help many more students afford college and get a first-rate education, leading to gainful employment,” he says.

Many observers say the fee decrease was made possible largely because of a budget surplus created by increased property tax revenues. But they also charge that the bill was timed to coincide with Schwarzenegger’s reelection bid. Teacher’s unions statewide, angered by the sizeable tuition increases handed down by his adminstration, had flocked to his Democratic opponent in vast numbers.

“When there’s an election year, and there’s more money to spend, they’re going to spend it on stuff that’s going to get votes, so this plays well,” Lightman says.

“The generation of the highest percentage of college-educated students is retiring, and it’s being replaced by a younger, more dynamic, but also more immigrant population, for many of whom, higher ed is not in the family lineage,” he adds. “If we don’t educate these folks, they’re going to end up in the service industry. They’re not going to end up with jobs that are going to feed a family, purchase a house and produce tax revenue. So, what’s $6 a unit to the state? We’ve got to go out and educate the population.” 

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