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Should College Students to Be Able to Pay Their Way Off Wait Lists?

With wait lists thousands of students deep, California's community colleges say they'll add more class sections if students pay full price.

Heading to community college for a couple of years to get general courses out of the way and save money sounds like a good idea—unless you can't actually take the classes you need because they're full. The problem is especially bad in California, where every semester 10,000 to 15,000 students end up on wait lists. Now a bill introduced by two state assembly members and sponsored by Santa Monica Community College and the College of the Canyons proposes to have students pay more if they want to get off the lists and into a class.

That's right: you would be able to pay your way off the wait list. If you can't pony up more cash, you're out of luck. The schools say they have no choice but to resort to this plan because California has cut $1 billion from community college budgets over the past three years. With more cuts coming, the schools simply can't afford to add more classes, even with next year's state subsidized tuition set to rise to $36 per credit hour. But if enough students are willing to pay the unsubsidized price of up to $150 per credit hour, the schools will offer another section of a class.

"If we can find a way to get wealthier students to pay a larger share of the costs so that we can save for disadvantaged students, I don’t see what’s wrong with that," says Scott Lay, head of the Community College League of California, an organization of the state's junior college presidents and trustees. Other proponents of the bill say that students who want to enroll in high-demand classes are already heading to for-profit colleges that lack waiting lists. If students are paying more somewhere else, they might as well pay more at the community college.

Critics like Carl Friedlander, president of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers, say it's a step back for social equality. The proposal "creates a metaphorical toll lane in the California community colleges for those who can pay and, essentially, it institutes a kind of economic segregation of the system," he told Inside HigherEd.

Friedlander is right that the bill creates a two-tier solution, but the students who are hurt most might not be the poorest. Since the lowest income students are eligible for Pell Grants, and one third of students get fee waivers if they fill out a FAFSA and have $1 of unmet need, students from lower-middle-class and middle-class backgrounds that don't qualify for grants or waivers could be the ones that really feel the pinch.

Undoubtedly, colleges need to be more affordable for everyone. But at a time when community colleges nationwide are struggling to even stay open and the budget situation in California is not looking like it's going to improve anytime soon, this might be the only realistic short-term solution to get students off the wait lists.

photo via 1tract1life

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