The Drive to ‘Privatize’ Community Colleges

santa-monica.jpgSanta Monica Community College, a public two-year institution on the Pacific coast not far from Los Angeles, has a reputation as the jewel in the crown of California’s 2.9 million-student community-college system. Known for academic excellence, Santa Monica has one of the highest transfer rates in the state to California’s elite four-year colleges public and private, and nearly ten percent of its 34,000 students hail from abroad. Young people from such countries as Korea, China, and Sweden are willing to pay Santa Monica’s $275-per-credit non-resident tuition rate–more than five times as much as California residents pay–to study there.

But when Santa Monica’s trustees last month decided to deal with
drastically reduced state funding by extending the concept of
“differential tuition” (different rates for different groups of
students) so as to charge higher tuition for the college’s most
sought-after classes, the result was a strategic and public-relations
debacle: pepper-sprayed protesters, cries of favoritism for better-off
students, an opinion from the California Attorney General’s Office that
two-tier tuition violated the state’s education code, and, finally, the
trustees’ abandonment of the idea about three weeks ago.

So, is differential tuition dead? Hardly. There seems to be a growing consensus among community-college administrators across the country that in this era of chronic economic recession and declining government funding, some form of “privatization” is the inevitable wave of the future –specifically higher tuition, but also fund-raising from private donors and profit-generating employee-training partnerships with private industry. California, for example, has slashed more than $800 million in public funding for its community-college system over the last few years, effectively forcing Santa Monica Community College to drop about a thousand classes.

Tuition from Santa Monica’s 3,300 international students paying $275 per unit in contrast to California residents’ $46 generates about $13 million in annual revenue for the college. And so it was that when the American Association of Community Colleges held its annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., in April, some community-college administrators openly praised the idea of differential tuition, although there was agreement that Santa Monica had gone about trying to implement it in the wrong way, at least in public-relations terms.

For example, according to a report in Inside Higher Education, Stephen M. Curtis, president of the Community College of Philadelphia, said his institution “behaves much more like a private college these days than a public.” Curtis produced a chart showing that tuition accounted for nearly 58 percent of his institution’s budget for the 2010-2011 academic year, up from about 30 percent in 1977-78 as state and city funding have fallen drastically over the decades (the city of Philadelphia now contributes only 15 percent of the Community College of Philadelphia’s operating costs).

Outsourcing Day Care and Snow Removal

Curtis said his institution had just finished its first fund-raising campaign ever, raising more than $10 million from private donors, and suggested that the college ought to outsource (thus following a private-sector model) such operations as cleaning services, child care, and snow removal. Another community-college leader, Rufus Glasper, chancellor of the Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona, agreed with Curtis that forms of privatization were essential for community colleges’ survival. “We have no choice. The state funds are gone forever,” Glasper said. He urged that community colleges consider such cost-saving, revenue-enhancing measures as substituting computers for live teachers in low-level remedial math courses and bidding for contracts with local businesses to train their employees.

As for differential tuition, that’s been a practice at both community colleges and four-year public colleges for at least five years. Santa Monica Community College’s mistake was that, while it came up with an entrepreneurial solution to state funding cuts, it seems not to have thought entrepreneurially enough. The idea came from Santa Monica’s politically liberal trustees, who included an ACLU board member. One trustee quoted by the Los Angeles Times praised the idea as socialism in action: “an opportunity to be Robin Hood.”

Students enrolling in high-demand core courses in English, math, and history would pay $180 per credit (close to the out-of-state rate of $275) and thus subsidize less popular courses offered at the standard state-subsidized rate of $46 per credit. The philosophy was: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The Marxist-friendly plan backfired when it turned out that even in ultra-progressive (and ultra-affluent) Santa Monica, young people and their parents weren’t eager to pay for other people’s niche academic interests. Hence the protests and the trustees’ subsequent abandonment of differential tuition.

Successful differential-tuition policies at other colleges, by contrast, have focused, not on soaking one group of students in order to subsidize another but upon the relative costs of the programs in question. Aims Community College in northern Colorado, for example, has established four different tuition rates geared to the expense of operating the courses, with standard liberal arts offerings at the bottom ($67.36 per credit hour) and such highly technical vocational offerings as aviation, radiological tech, and nursing at the top ($128.75 per credit hour). Many public four-year colleges also impose differential tuition. Such institutions as Arizona State University, Iowa State University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign levy significantly higher tuition on students majoring in engineering, chemistry, biology, business, nursing, and education than on those majoring in humanities and the social sciences.

As might be expected, such “privatization” efforts, from pricing public higher education in accordance with such market principles as recovering the cost of production to competing for training contracts with businesses to fund-raising from private donors have drawn criticism from those who believe that education should essentially be free of charge and that taxpayers should bear the sole burden of funding it. One common complaint is that charging premium tuition for certain majors will discourage low-income students from pursuing them. A Washington Monthly blogger, Daniel Luzer wrote, “Free community college is probably the best way to ensure that college graduation becomes standard.” He urged that community-colleges simply “demand adequate funding” from state and local governments.

That sounds all well and good–but in these economic hard times, it’s akin to “demanding” blood from a turnip. At least the imaginative administrators at many communities these days are being realistic when they turn to the private sector and market principles.


2 thoughts on “The Drive to ‘Privatize’ Community Colleges

  1. It’s not “economic hard times” that cause this. It’s a function of California’s totally nonfunctional governance structure. Free college is not some crazy pie-in-the-sky notion; it’s a crucial component of California’s plan for higher education. It’s the inability of the legislature to raise money like normal states, or set aside money for crisis times, that’s causing this synthetic problem.
    And stop with the “market principles” line. We’re talking about community colleges here, they’re supposed to be freely available. If true market principles were at play here, and there was no government oversight or money, community colleges and state universities wouldn’t exist and only rich people would go to college.

  2. Kudos to SMCC. I took premed there in the
    late ’50s and got a great education and
    was accepted to many prestigious universities.
    It has come a long way from when it was called
    “Splinterville” in the late ’40s due to
    most of the buildings being old barracks
    handed down by the military.
    Keep up the good work, SMCC.

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