As public higher education struggles for funding it is only natural to expect cuts in services. But what about the other possibility – premium payments for what used to be free.
Consumers are getting more accustomed to paying fees for extra services. It’s expected in certain situations. First-class accommodations, for example, are something for which you would expect to pay more. Some concert promoters now charge premium fees for top seats and access to the artists. You get more for your money if you can afford it. Where fees for extras lead to consumer angst is when the additional money is for something you always expected to get in the first place, such as checked baggage for your air travel. As a college student you could reasonably expect to get access to the courses you need to graduate. That may no longer be the case at Santa Monica College. A radical change there is raising concerns that this simple expectation may no longer be a guarantee for their students, and that getting the courses you do need may require a premium payment.
Last week’s column discussed how the decline in funding for public higher education is leading to a crisis of serious proportions. For many public universities the only way out is to combine drastic cuts with increased tuition or fees. It’s either cut costs or raise revenue. In these tough times, donors are rarely coming forward to make up the difference.
Two-year colleges in California, like Santa Monica, are facing particularly hard times. At the same time they lose state funding their enrollment is skyrocketing, adding more demands to their overtaxed institutions. Students who would have previously attended Cal State or the University of California, are now seeking less expensive community college rates – and that has lead to overcrowding and the inability to offer all the course sections needed to meet the needs of every student.
So good old capitalism steps into the picture. Administrators approved a plan for Santa Monica to outsource the delivery of extra course sections to a newly created non-profit arm of the institution that would charge $200 per unit instead of the regular $36 per unit. Those who can afford it can step to the front of the registration line.
Glimpse of the future
The plan is raising objections, and its legality is being questioned. Let’s say the approved plan is not overruled or overturned. It clearly raises issues of inequality at the institution by creating a tiered system that allows the privileged – at least those with a few hundred extra bucks — to cruise onto the express lane. To criticize the policy decision seems somewhat hypocritical because American higher education is an inherently unequal system. We rarely concern ourselves with the lack of equity until it rears its ugly head in such an unexpected way. Just the announcement of the plan and the rationale behind it suggests our country has turned a new page in higher education.
It confirms that a major segment the American higher education system is now seriously dysfunctional. Owing to state funding cuts schools like Santa Monica are left with few choices. They can either deprive vast numbers of students of the access to needed courses or establish a system so at least some percentage of the students can get what they need to graduate. When you consider all the factors, is Santa Monica really to blame? Some might say this is the exact type of innovation colleges need to demonstrate. It’s also the kind of innovation we should not need to invoke at all.
How much for help
Once higher education breaks the premium payment barrier, as the airline industry did quite some time ago, there is no predicting where things might stop. First it’s premiums for access to specific courses. Next we will be asking students to fork over more money for what they used to get for free. Why wait for a computer at the technology lab? Just pay $10 at the door and be ushered to a waiting terminal. Not enough dorm rooms to house all the freshmen. Just pay $500 to avoid getting stuck in a makeshift triple in a student lounge. For $500 more you might even get a private room. Perhaps the academic library can take advantage of the premium service trend, too. We could certainly use the extra funds.
Think about all the things we give away for free for which students might be willing to pay a premium for exclusive service. Need access to primary research documents in special collections to finish your senior thesis. There is quite a demand for the archivist’s time, but for a small fee exclusive access to an hour of that staff member’s time could be possible. It usually takes 24 to 48 hours to deliver a book from the off-site shelving location, but for $10 a student could obtain next-hour delivery. Of course, these suggestions sound absurd. Charging fees conflicts with our core values. When our funding is cut, however, the community is deprived of services and resources, and we fail to deliver on our mission. Is it ultimately preferable to charge a premium to maintain a service if the only other option is taking it away? Perhaps that is a question our community members will need to answer.
To the rescue
Santa Monica College’s premium payment plan raises many questions and will be the subject of debate within the higher education industry. It might even encourage other institutions to do the same if a barrier is broken. What concerns me most is that those who make the decisions about higher education funding will see Santa Monica’s new idea as a model for supplanting public funding. If that happens we will all be in a far worse situation, one in which we may have no choice but to shift to a premium payment system. There was some good news. In a recent development, a scholarship was created by a local family who wanted to make it possible for more students to pay the premium for these courses. It is a nice ending to this story, assuming the majority of the students can take advantage. But it may only be the beginning of a far greater challenge for those who provide public higher education.