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Campus Blues : Tough Times, Rising Tuition Force Some to Rethink College Degree


WESTSIDE — The early morning air was crisp with anticipation last week as fall classes at Santa Monica and West Los Angeles colleges began. Students hugged returning friends, pored over their new schedules and chatted excitedly in the long line stretching from the bookstore.

But there were nearly 2,500 faces missing at the two Westside community colleges this year, victims of sharply rising tuition costs and fewer classes.

And even many of those fortunate enough to be stuffing stiff-spined books into their backpacks say this semester may be their last, that they are barely hanging on in California's troubled economic times.

Brian Davis is one of those. "It's so bad I may have to leave school for a semester, just to work and save some money," he said. "It's up in the air. I don't even have money to buy my books. I barely paid my tuition, and I have barely enough for transportation. I have no car. Friends are helping me.

"When tuition was $6 a unit, I could deal with that. But I had to pay $13. . . . It comes close to $300 a semester for tuition and fees and another $300 or $350 for books."

Given the steep cost of a degree from a prestigious private university, that may sound like a bargain to many, but such a tuition boost can put a college degree out of reach for a student population that is largely minority and drawn from low-income families.

"The increase looms large when your father has been laid off

from General Motors and your mom no longer has a job at the supermarket that serviced those plant employees and you are the only one earning a salary and you work at Burger King," said Fausto Capobianco, director of public affairs and government relations for the Los Angeles Community College District, of which West Los Angeles College is a part.

This fall's student exodus was triggered by the Legislature's decision to increase community college fees from $6 per unit, with a $60 maximum, to $13 with no cap. Students with undergraduate degrees now pay $50 per unit, and out-of-state students are charged from $117 to $122 per unit.

As a result, college officials say, districtwide enrollment in state-supported two-year colleges has plummeted. On the Westside, first-week enrollment is down by more than 5% at Santa Monica College from last year, to 23,227, and by nearly 13% at West Los Angeles College, to 7,133.


College officials attribute the drop both to the unavailability of classes, cut by reductions in state funding, and to the fee increase. They say it has not been offset by so-called reverse transfers of students squeezed out of the Cal State and UC systems.

Financial aid is available, but students say they often fall between the cracks. Davis, for example, said he didn't qualify for help initially because both he and his parents worked. When his father was laid off from his aerospace job, his mother's image-consulting firm foundered, and his own campus job was eliminated, they hadn't been jobless long enough for him to qualify for aid this fall.

Now he is eligible, he says, but by the time his application is processed for the spring semester, he will have earned too many credits to qualify. "But I can't afford to move on yet, and I'm still meeting my general education requirements," he said, shaking his head.

Some students said their colleagues seem uninformed about financial aid programs, a lifesaver for students such as Reyna Vasquez, 20, a psychology major at Santa Monica College who said her parents' low income qualified her for a fee waiver and enabled her to return for a second year.

Other students say the fee hike is forcing them to stretch out their education. "It's $500 a semester between books and tuition and parking," said John Cornejo, 25, a liberal arts student in his second year at Santa Monica who works full time and has the money and time for only eight units this fall. "For a student who supports himself, this is not a two-year college; it takes more like four years to complete."


Enrollment is down sharply among those hit the hardest by the tuition increases: students who already have undergraduate degrees. At Santa Monica College, the number of such students who have signed up for fall classes is about half of last year's total. (Students already holding degrees generally account for 5% to 10% of total enrollment.)

"The Legislature's rationale is that those with degrees don't need (more classes) as much, and therefore we're going to hit them hardest," said Bruce Smith, public information officer at Santa Monica College. "There's a notion that people with bachelor's degrees just come back to take personal-growth classes, but studies have shown that more often they return to upgrade their job skills or because they've been laid off and want to get training, to retool, in another field."


Capobianco agreed, adding that $50 per unit is prohibitive for people with advanced degrees but no job--"say a guy with two master's degrees but out of a job and unemployment money who wants to upgrade his skills."

Santa Monica College student body president and third-year student Manuel Garcia warns that California has made a big mistake in raising community college tuition at a time when people are already beset with financial problems.

"We need to allocate more money for education, because it affects our standard of living in the future and the amount we will have to spend on jails and social problems," he said.

He said the fee hike has been especially hard on certain segments of the population, such as young women struggling for an education while trying to raise children on their own.

"It's only $13," said Garcia, "but for some, $13 is too much."

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