An overview of California tuition cost


Sean Tongson

Students preparing to enroll in California community colleges are taken aback by the rising of tuition fees. Currently priced at $46 a unit, that number may be considered to be expensive for some students, especially considering that a few short years ago, classes were a mere $20 or even $11 a unit. When Los Medanos College opened its doors in 1974, instruction was free.

But what causes tuition to rise in the first place? Community College tuition fees are set by the California State Legislature, with local college governing boards having no say regarding the timing of the fee hikes or the amounts of the fees.

“Changes in tuition fees, whether up or down, are made at the State Chancellor’s office in Sacramento,” said District Director of Communications Tim Leong. “We have no knowledge or have heard any suggestions to change tuition rates in the immediate future.”

While tuition fees have historically risen up and down, the recent increase of tuition can be attributed to the state’s economic recession.

“The California State Legislature has taken on enrollment fees as a mechanism to offset budget deficits which the state experiences, said Student Senate President Rich Copenhagen. “As the state ends up with less money in times of economic recession, the Legislature increases fees to offset that loss of revenue.”

In recent years, tuition increases have been used to help to backfill revenue the state was unable to afford and to supplement money the state had previously funded the community colleges. Most of the tuition fees go back to the state, with the remaining funds being distributed throughout the 112 community colleges as a part of the apportionment process.

“I think the primary reason why tuitions have increased has been the dismal state budget and the need for everyone to share the financial pain,” said Leong. “While it may address the short-term financial situation, I believe it raises a larger fundamental question of who is being hurt or limited by these increases.”

As a result of tuition increases, a common side effect is that enrollment in community colleges generally decreases, with many students intimidated by rising fees. Another side affect of budget reductions includes the limited course offerings, which impact students since they are unable to find and complete the classes they need for graduation.

“The fee increases have deterred students from enrolling in our colleges and in some circumstances finishing their education,” said Copenhagen. “The most significantly impacted students are those on the cusp of receiving a waiver for their fees due to their financial status, but do not quite qualify for the waiver. Many of them have dropped out or had to take out loans to finish their schooling.”

However, it is important to note that lower income students need not worry about tuition increases if they receive financial aid since the Board of Governors fee waiver usually covers the increases.

“Any time we increase costs for students we have a direct impact of the ability of students to afford access to higher education,” said LMC Vice President Kevin Horan. “Students that receive financial aid are more often than not covered by their existing financial aid packages that absorb the fee increases. Students not on financial aid see a more direct impact to their personal finances.”

Although reducing tuition is a “top priority” as a student leader, Copenhagen notes that it is unlikely to occur within the next several years.

“The state is still in a state of trauma from the cuts it sustained during the recent recession, and unfortunately the student voice isn’t the most powerful player when it comes to deciding how our new revenues are spent, which would be where a fee decrease would come from.”

Despite the fact that tuition isn’t expected to drop anytime soon, it should be noted that California, at $46 a unit, still ranks among the most inexpensive in the nation as far as community colleges are concerned, compared to Washington ($105.50 a unit), Florida ($109.22 a unit), New York ($166.25 a unit) or Minnesota ($192.00 a unit).

“The cost to attend a California community college is still the best bargain nationwide,” said Leong. “To give an example, Arizona community colleges are contemplating approximately $87 a unit, an increase of about $10 per unit. Other community colleges across the country are over $100 a unit, so our $46 a unit is very low compared to other parts of the country.”

Copenhagen maintains that although it is still more inexpensive than most, if not all states, tuition should still be much lower.

“California’s community colleges are still significantly less expensive than most community college systems in other states, though we maintain that education is a public good and should be provided in full by California.”