At $12 per unit, California community colleges offer the nation's cheapest college education--one that is expected to get even cheaper with the Legislature's passage of a proposal to reduce fees for the second year in a row.
But although low fees are popular with students and lawmakers, they are criticized by some policy experts who say that contrary to intent, California's rock-bottom community college prices work against the interests of low-income students.
"Fee reductions help the most well-to-do half of students but do nothing for the poorest students," said Buzz Breedlove, higher education coordinator with the state legislative analyst's office.
The reason, he said, is that more than 40% of California community college students qualify for fee waivers.
For these students--in theory, anyway--fee reductions only shrink the overall pool of funds for college and make the state less able to take advantage of a federal tax credit program.
Breedlove's views are echoed by college officials, who say popular fee policies amount to subsidies for the middle class.
But such criticism is countered by educators who cite a powerful psychological benefit of low fees. They say that despite drawbacks, low fees help attract students, many of whom enroll with incomplete information about what aid they might receive.
"A lot of families look at the cost of college and say, 'Gee, we can't afford it.' Then their children aren't motivated to try to get there," said Hortense Cooper, financial aid director at Los Angeles City College.
The question is not likely to be resolved soon.
The new fee would be $11 a unit, down from $13 two years ago. The average yearly fees for a full-time student would fall from the current $360 per year to about $330. The measure was supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, and by Davis--despite a recommendation against it by the state legislative analyst.
It's not hard to understand such backing, said Patrick McCallum, lobbyist for the Los Angeles Community College District.
Reductions in community college fees are so popular with voters that some polls have found they are more strongly supported than reductions in vehicle registration fees, he said.
But community college officials say this year's proposed fee reduction would cost the system nearly $13 million. The number is small compared with other funding sources--fees, after all, supply only 8% of per-student revenue, with the rest coming from state tax revenue. But since most colleges operate on razor-thin margins, the amount is enough to rankle college leaders.
"For us, a full-time student's tuition reduction will buy one cup of coffee per week for a semester. For a part-time student, it's a video rental per semester," said Jim Middleton, superintendent and president of the College of Marin.
By contrast, if the state kept fees at present levels, the money that trickled down to Marin would be enough to double the district's library book funds or furnish a new computer lab, he said. "If we are really interested in student benefit, my students would benefit more from more books and computers than from one video a semester," he said.
Another problematic aspect of California's low fees is that they hurt the state's ability to benefit from federal money for higher education, Breedlove said.
New federal tax credits for college fees, for example, allow parents to take a 100% tax credit for the first $1,000 of their children's tuition. Some states charge high tuition, knowing that the effect on students will be offset with the tax credit.
But with current fees at about $360 per year, the state is essentially sacrificing the difference--$640 per student--by not charging fees that could be recovered by parents in tax credits.
"All that money could be targeted to low-income kids," said Thomas J. Kane, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University.
In the early days of the California community colleges, there were no fees at all. In 1984, a fee of $100 a year was imposed.
Since then, fees have varied with the political winds and the amount of cash in state coffers, but they have always remained low relative to other states.
Community college fees are set by the state Legislature and are the same at all 107 state community colleges.
Although California claims the lowest fees in the country, the state is not a leader in college access for the poor. Instead, the state ranks 22nd in the nation in the chances that a low-income student will make it to college, according to a study by Tom Mortenson, a researcher who publishes the Postsecondary Education Opportunity newsletter.
Part of California's problem is that college fees have been handled in such a haphazard way, said Warren Fox, executive director of the state Postsecondary Education Commission. "We have no fee policy in California," he said.