Secondary Education Is Becoming a Secondary Priority
by Harsha Nahata | University of Michigan
More and more people are going to college or are seeing college as an option. At the same time, this rising demand for a college education is pushing costs to new highs. Statistics place the average student loan debt after graduation at over $20,000. We’re reminded of this almost constantly thanks to the pre-election campaign season. From championing student loan reforms to accusing college of being an elitist idea, the candidates have picked up on the rising costs of college and the impact this will have on American youth. Students aren’t the only ones being hit hard. Tightening state budgets, the economic downturn, and cuts to secondary education have placed colleges in a position of scrambling to cover costs.
In the midst of this environment, one community college in California, Santa Monica College, is implementing a two-tiered price system for classes. The college is suffering as a result of immense cuts to state funding – the college lost $11 million in the last year and is at risk of losing another $5 million in the upcoming year. This new price model is a proposed solution to the cuts.
The new system would entail charging students more for classes that are in high demand. Santa Monica administrators claim that classes in the Math and English departments are in high demand. Students are clamoring to sign up for these courses even after spots have been filled. So, the college would offer extra sections of these courses to students who need them and are willing to pay. High demand classes would be offered at a price of about $200 per credit, compared to the $36 per credit that is characteristic of the current fee. These classes would be in addition to what is already offered, in an attempt to satisfy high demand.
While this strategy follows the laws of the free market – higher prices for higher demand – it raises serious questions about the equity of education and fairness when it comes to paying tuition. Asking students to pay more for a particular class – when all the other classes are a lower price – simply because it fills up quickly is unfair and may have drastic consequences for the students’ educations.
Santa Monica college is a community college. And it has one of the highest rates of transfers to four year universities. Often times people start out at community colleges as a more cost efficient way of completing general requirements. Raising prices in such an environment seems counterintuitive. Students opt to take math or intro English at a community college for $40/ credit hour exactly so that they don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for each credit at a 4-year university. Santa Monica’s decision to increase costs for these classes will only turn students away, closing an affordable option many youth turn to for higher education.
Morever, the policy creates a divide as the type of education students receive at this school is dependent upon what they can afford. These classes are in high demand for a reason, they are necessary for a large number of people to take. And, with this new policy, the criteria for who gets access to these courses is based on who can afford it. So basically, if someone can’t afford to pay five times more for a math class that’s filled up, they’re out of luck. This is establishing not only a two-tiered pay system, but a two-tiered education, with those who have financial resources being on top.
What’s sad isn’t necessarily the policy itself, but the fact that circumstances have pushed Santa Monica college to consider this option in the first place. There is something to be said when a state-funded community college is having to resort to such desperate means to sustain itself. There’s no reason for such large cuts. And far too many states are making secondary education a secondary priority. Every time budget cuts are placed on the table, it seems as though education is the first to go. There is a lot of talk on the political stage about becoming globally competitive or out-innovating others in the world, but these same politicians are going back and voting for cuts in higher education funding. If we want to be a competitive country, we have to start making education a higher priority.
The fact that students have to pay extra to take a basic class such as math or English at a community college is a testament to how bad things have become for American institutions of higher education. Having to pay differently for classes within an institution is unfair to students and something that will result in less access for them overall.
Harsha is originally from Saginaw, Michigan. She is a sophomore at the University of Michigan, and is currently majoring in International Studies and Political Science. She also writes for the Michigan Daily.