When the registration worker at Riverside Community College asked Jeff Ogan if he held a bachelor's degree, Ogan thought he had make a little joke.
"Yes, I do. Why? Are you going to charge me more?" Ogan, 30, a business administration graduate returning to college to study for a real estate license, asked with a laugh.
Charge him more is exactly what the college did, under a recent state law that requires California's 107 two-year colleges to assess higher fees on students who have bachelor's degrees. Instead of paying $10 a credit, Ogan and most others who have four-year degrees are paying $50 a credit--$150 for the typical three-unit course.
With an eye toward helping offset cuts in state funding, recession-wracked California this year became the first state to implement a differential fee system based on a college student's previous education.
Policy-makers wanted to meet the growing demand for classes and keep fees--still below the national average of $40 per credit--as low as possible for the maximum number of students, in keeping with the state's longstanding policy of open access to the community colleges. Underlying the decision were assumptions that most degree holders could afford the higher charges and that many were in college mainly for personal enrichment.
But few students are paying the higher fees, a recent state report showed. Some have qualified for the exemptions for laid-off workers, displaced homemakers or people on welfare. Far more have stayed away: Only 60,000 of the 118,000 degree holders enrolled last fall returned for the spring semester, when the higher fees took effect. They accounted for a sizable part of the 10% drop in enrollment--147,000 students--since last spring.
Suburban colleges with sizable proportions of degree-holding students--including Santa Monica, El Camino in Torrance and West Los Angeles--reported enrollment drops after several years of growth.
As a result, the differential fee, which the governor's office estimated would produce $40 million, generated just $9 million this spring, the state chancellor's office said.
"This policy is a failure by any measure," said Patrick M. Callan, executive director of the California High Education Policy Center, which recently published a critical assessment of the practice. "There are some questions that we ought to be asking, but this was a rush to short-term solutions."
The numbers take on added significance because of the debate over the state budget for the coming fiscal year.
Among Gov. Pete Wilson's proposals to cut funding and raise student costs at the community colleges is a bid to charge bachelor's degree holders for the full cost of instruction, about $105 a credit, beginning with the fall semester. Fiscal committees in both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature have disagreed with most of Republican Wilson's proposals and have recommended that the charge for degree holders remain at $50 a credit.
None of the key players sees much chance this year of eliminating the differential, set to expire in 1996. With Wilson and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) believing that degree holders should pay more than undergraduates, and with no recession relief in sight, California Community Colleges Chancellor David Mertes is picking his budget battles carefully.
"I could give you a scenario about what I think we ought to have and it would be far more, but the state is in a fiscal crisis and we all need to do everything we can to meet the (students') needs and get through this crisis," Mertes said.
He reluctantly agreed to the differential fee after seeing its wide political support last year and said he has decided to put his energies into fighting funding cuts and all but "very modest" fee increases this year.
In the meantime, students with bachelor's degrees have grappled with the effects of the higher fees. A recent survey by Mertes' office has contradicted the assumptions about who those students are and why they are back in college.
Three of every five students with baccalaureate degrees have enrolled to change careers or upgrade job skills, the survey found. Thirteen percent are unemployed, and many of those who do hold jobs work just part time. An estimated 54% would qualify for financial aid, based on income and number of dependents.
Of those degree holders who re-enrolled for the spring semester, about one-third qualified for exemptions from the higher fees, the survey found.
Kathy Wong, 33, qualified for an exemption by getting a letter from a state unemployment office verifying her long job search. She will begin classes at Pasadena City College this summer, a move she hopes will lead to a master's degree in family counseling and a new career.
Wong said she and her husband are still paying off student loans she incurred earning her 1984 degree from a private arts college.