STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, the unemployment rate for people with college educations has actually remained quite low throughout the economic downturn. But state budget cuts are hitting the very public colleges and universities that have helped so many people get a hand up. Community colleges are especially vulnerable because they often don't have the hefty endowments of more established schools.
In Southern California, for example, growing anger over funding cuts has put one community college at center stage. With more students competing for fewer classes, administrators at Santa Monica College decided to offer additional classes at a much higher price.
Gloria Hillard reports.
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GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Late morning at Santa Monica College and students hurriedly zigzag across the quad. It's deep into spring semester, but for 20-year-old Christine Deal having to crash a class is still fresh in her mind.
CHRISTINE DEAL: That's where the class is already filled, and so you have to go beg the professor for a slot. And you have to cry and give him a story, but most of the time they do a sort of lottery.
HILLARD: Balancing books on her lap, second-year student Alexandra Brandl says she was only able to get into two classes this semester.
ALEXANDRA BRANDL: You know, if you need to take English, you should be able to take English. I can't get into the classes that I need to graduate and complete my credits. And it's really difficult.
HILLARD: Budget cuts have forced Santa Monica College to eliminate more than a thousand classes since 2008. So school administrators came up with an idea. When state-funded classes at $46 a unit fill up, students could choose supplemental self-funded classes – say, in math, English or science - at $180 a unit. That's nearly quadruple the price set by the state legislature. So your average three-credit class?
CHUI L. TSANG: The classes that we're talking about will be at a cost of about $540 per class.
HILLARD: Chui L. Tsang is the president of Santa Monica College.
TSANG: These are critical transfer classes that students need. So we want to add to some of these so a student need not sit on the sideline and wait another semester or wait another year before they can transfer.
PAUL FEIST: It's not clear that the education code permits this.
HILLARD: California Community College's vice chancellor, Paul Feist, says his office is concerned about equal access to education.
FEIST: Low income students might not get the classes that they need under this type of arrangement, that essentially there's a two-tier system in which wealthier students can get the classes they need and more low income students cannot.
RICHARD TAHVILDARAN-JESSWEIN: Good afternoon. (Unintelligible) can you take a seat please? There's plenty of seats...
HILLARD: More than a hundred students are packed into Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein's class called Race, Ethnicity and Politics of Difference.
TAHVILDARAN-JESSWEIN: And so here today our conversation is about this particular policy, Santa Monica College pushing the envelope, if you will.
HILLARD: When asked how many in the class favor the idea of self-funded classes...
TAHVILDARAN-JESSWEIN: Please raise your hand. One.
HILLARD: Anger over the issue erupted recently in protest when close to 100 students demonstrated outside the college's board of trustees meeting.
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HILLARD: Campus police made no arrests but three people were hospitalized and released after being pepper sprayed. Student government president Harrison Wills says students will continue to make their voices heard.
HARRISON WILLS: This is something that affects us, we weren't consulted. It's a dangerous precedent.
HILLARD: In the wake of the student protest, the chancellor's office has asked Santa Monica College to put the controversial rate increase on hold. And community colleges around the country are anxiously watching to see what happens here, in Santa Monica.
For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
INSKEEP: Later today, the president of Santa Monica College and the board of trustees will hold a special meeting. They will consider a request by the office of California Community College chancellor to postpone the two-tiered tuition program over questions of its legality.
Now, if the plan does eventually roll out this summer as scheduled, it's believed it will be the first of its kind in the nation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.