Community college students may be hit with a $40 charge

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

The Legislative Analyst's Office, which offers nonpartisan 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 the charge would remain the lowest in the country.

It's still just a proposal. But many acknowledge that some kind of a rate increase may be necessary given the state's economic condition.

The possible increase has landed with a predictable thud in student circles.

Modesto Junior College's Nicole Bates receives a waiver for her fees because she's considered a low-income student, but she said the fee increase would affect many students who are just scraping by.

"If I did not receive that waiver, and fees increased, I wouldn't be able to attend," said Bates, who's studying nursing. Politicians and administrators focus on the per-unit fees, but they often forget the extra costs of attending school, such as paying for textbooks, she said.

At 12 units, the average increase in fees would be $168 a semester.

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.

Yosemite Community College District Chancellor Roe Darnell said he understands the need to charge higher fees, but the increases need to be slow.

"The sudden and erratic jumps are ridiculous. They're taking money out of very meager pockets," he said.

YCCD is the parent district of MJC and Columbia College.

MJC civil engineering student Jacob Yakow said fewer students will be able to attend full time if fees increase.

"They'll either go for unemployment or they'll be wandering the streets, especially the younger ones, which is sad because you want to get them in college right away," said Yakow, who works in MJC's financial aid office.

$150M in revenue

For the California State University and University of California system, fee increases are part of next year's budget strategy.

But work continues on the 2010-11 budget, with Gov. Schwarzenegger due to present a budget revision in May.

A $40 per-unit price would produce $150 million in revenue. 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.

Might be forced into a hike

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.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.