College, the New Luxury Item


A sad little story has been unfolding at Santa Monica Community College in Southern California. Santa Monica is apparently one of the better two-year colleges in the state, with some thirty-four thousand students and an excellent record of students moving on to the state’s four-year system.

But its success has led to a steady increase in applications even as state-college budgets have been cut sharply. Kids have also learned which programs are most likely to lead to jobs—health technologies, computer programming, bookkeeping—so those are swamped with applicants.

Santa Monica decided that it could expand the favored programs if it charged students the full cost of running them. California’s two-year college tuition is $36 per credit hour. A full-year thirty-credit program would therefore cost $1,080, which is very reasonable. With no state subsidy, the break-even cost rises to $180 per hour, or $5,400. That’s a big jump, but not out of line with public college tuitions in many other states.

One shouldn’t condemn the Santa Monica administration. Working-class kids clearly want employment-related training. If the public systems won’t provide it, for-profit “technical schools” will step in, likely charging much more while providing an inferior product. But the optics of the price increase are still dreadful. Students predictably protested, campus police used pepper...

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About the Author

Charles R. Morris, a Commonweal columnist, is the author of The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown (Public Affairs), among other books, and is a fellow at the Century Foundation.