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Community college stopgap

Legislation by Assemblyman Das Williams would make extension courses available over summer and winter breaks at higher fees to help students finish their studies.

June 11, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • An Accounting 101 classroom is full at Orange Coast Community College in Costa Mesa.
An Accounting 101 classroom is full at Orange Coast Community College in… (Los Angeles Times )

Even though the state's budget situation has improved, it will be years before California's community colleges will be able to offer adequate numbers of courses. Hundreds of thousands of students will continue to be shut out of classes they need.

Though normally we would deplore creating a two-tiered educational system within the community colleges, now isn't the time to stick to lofty principles about equal pricing for all. The loftiest thing that state legislators could do now is to help students of all financial backgrounds get through college. AB 955, by Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), would do that by allowing community college districts to offer extension courses over the summer and during winter vacation for which students would pay a higher price, much as they do for extension classes at California State University and the University of California.

The courses would cost up to $200 per unit, or $600 for a three-unit class, which is close to five times as much as a regular state-subsidized class.

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We opposed a similar effort last year at Santa Monica College largely because of a concern that it would give the college an incentive to cut back on its state-subsidized offerings. Williams' legislation, however, addresses this concern. Extension courses could be offered only on campuses where classes already were full, and would have to be offered in addition to the full menu of regular courses, not in place of them.

Opponents complain that this will create an elite system in which students with money will graduate earlier than others. To some extent that's true, and it's not something to cheer about. But what makes the proposal hard to resist is that it would help other students as well. Students who take extension classes free up seats in regular classes. Furthermore, one-third of the extension revenue would have to be spent on scholarships so that low-income students could attend the classes as well. The law would sunset in 2020, by which time, it's hoped, the colleges will have adequate state funding.

The bill does leave one troubling loophole: If revenue outstrips expenses, the colleges would get to keep the profit. Prices should be limited to the colleges' cost; the prospect of making money is too tantalizing an incentive to offer only the most profitable courses or to emphasize extension courses over subsidized ones.

Williams makes an important point: Living expenses cost more than extension courses, and students with the money to wait months or years for a spot in a class have a better chance of completing their education than those without. In other words, the system already benefits those with money, while doing nothing for everyone else.

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