College Charges Students Extra to Get into In-Demand Classes

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Really need to take that econ course? It’s going to cost you. Santa Monica College is rolling out a two-tiered pay system so students who are desperate to get in to a class can gain admittance, if they can pony up the extra cash.

According to the New York Times, students at the California community college have long struggled to get spots in the most popular courses. Rather than continue the status quo, administrators will charge $180 per credit hour for the most expensive courses this summer, up from the current $36 per credit hour. That’s a steep increase, but may be worth it, especially for those students who need to take a specific course before they can transfer to a four-year university.

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But, as the Times notes, requiring extra funds for enrollment calls the traditional role and obligations of community colleges into question. Two-year colleges have always been a less-expensive option for students—and an especially good option for those who would like to get basic prerequisites out of the way before transferring to a more expensive four-year college. But for other students, community colleges are their only shot at getting a higher education. That’s because while low-income students are too often priced out of traditional four-year colleges, at community colleges they can complete job training courses that often result in a much higher-paying job than they could have gotten with only a high school diploma. So, in the worst-case scenario, charging more for popular, in-demand courses could freeze low-income students out of the courses they need the most in order to get ahead.

It’s likely, however, that budget cuts have made it so this is the only remaining option for Santa Monica College, which has cut more than 1,100 classes from its fall term. The state of California was hit especially hard by the recession, and according to the Times, since 2008 the state’s community college system has lost more than $809 million in state aid, including $564 million in the most recent budget.

And it’s not just community colleges that have been affected. Last week, California’s State University (CSU) system announced it would accept no new admissions for the spring 2013 semester at nearly all of its 23 campuses, a decision that will affect some 16,000 prospective students. According to USA Today, the university system has lost some $1 billion in the last four years due to state budget cuts. CSU administrators have already raised fees, upped class sizes and cut back on course options in response to the cuts, and had little choice but to make the dramatic cut in enrollment.

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With such drastic measures being taken by both the Santa Monica College and the CSU system to recoup costs, it’s worrisome what could happen if higher education is forced to sustain further cuts next year if Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget initiative to increase taxes fails in November.

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.