Key agency backs community college fee hike

The bargain-basement price of California community colleges could be headed for a markup next year.

The Legislative Analyst's Office -- which offers non-partisan financial and policy advice to the Legislature -- is recommending an increase from $26 per unit to $40 per unit. That would double what students paid in 2008-09 but remain the lowest price in the country.

So far, the proposal is just that -- a proposal. But many acknowledge that some kind of a rate hike may be necessary given the state's economic condition.

The $40 proposal, however, has landed with a predictable thud in student circles.

"I have yet to meet one person who thinks this is a great idea," said Sergey Saluschev, president of Fresno City College's Associated Student Government.

The community college system is just one of the players in California's ongoing budget crisis as the state faces a $20 billion shortfall next year.

The 112-college system -- which provides job training and prepares students for transfer to four-year universities -- struggled this year under the weight of growing demand and $520 million in budget cuts.

For the California State University and University of California system, fee increases already are part of next year's budget strategy. For the nearly 3 million community college students, however, the governor's budget proposal so far does not change fee levels.

But work continues on the 2010-11 budget, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger due to present a budget revision in May. At community colleges, the legislative analyst's recommendation is generating buzz.

A $40 per-unit price would produce $150 million in new revenue, while the most needy students would have their fees covered by financial-aid programs, according to analyst reports. State fee waivers and federal tax breaks help offset fee costs, according to the reports.

Community college fees in California would remain the lowest in the country even under the new rate, studies show. A full-time student carrying 30 units in an academic year would pay $1,200 at the new price. The national average this year is $3,000.

Still, the proposed rate has detractors. Scott Lay, president and chief executive officer of the Community College League of California in Sacramento, said he and other leaders are lobbying against such a sharp increase and in favor of the governor's original budget plan.

But if the system endures deep cuts to some programs, Lay said, "we might be forced to consider a fee increase -- although not to the $40 level."

Patrick Patterson, president of the State Center Community College District board of trustees, said classes now are a bargain. Some increase is reasonable, he said, especially as financial aid programs protect needy students.

"We need to be more realistic" in pricing college services, Patterson said.

Frank Gornick, chancellor of the Coalinga-based West Hills Community College District, said he and others have suggested a sliding scale. Students would pay more for an allied-health class, for example, because courses in the medical field generally require more expensive instruction.

A fee hike is inevitable, he said, calling that "the new normal we're facing in higher education."

Yet students like Saluschev worry that higher prices would force some people out of college. Those who don't qualify for financial aid would feel strain, he said.

"I'm against the idea of increasing the fees," said Saluschev, who lobbied for the status quo in Sacramento last month. "It's not going to benefit students. It's not going to improve services. It would only discourage students from enrolling."

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