Thursday, April 5, 2012

Spring Break

I woke up yesterday morning to see stories that an incident occurred at a Board of Trustees' meeting at Santa Monica College on Tuesday night. The Board was meeting to decide on a controversial plan to raise tuition for certain popular classes given during the summer. Students who wanted to speak out against the plan were turned away, and a confrontation ensued. 30 people were pepper-sprayed by Campus Police.

Santa Monica College is where I take my evening French class. I was not on campus the night of the meeting. But I followed the story and when I went to class last night, I was interested to hear whether my teachers or classmates had been there.

Most had not. But one or two had been there, or had been nearby. The conflict was aggravated by the fact that the Board, instead of anticipating a heightened interest in their vote, chose not to move their meeting to a larger hall. When the small room filled up, students were diverted to an overflow room. The crowd jammed into the hallways, police felt surrounded, and someone did something stupid. Many of the victims were bystanders or staff, trapped in the crush. One newspaper photo showed a child having her eyes washed out with milk.

The local police and fire department had responded to treat the injured, and at one point Pico Boulevard had been shut down. Students were doubly furious - first at the tuition increase and now at the response to their protest.

When I read the Los Angeles Times, and especially the comments following the story, I was dismayed and saddened. Whatever you might think about the issue, it doesn't seem right to me that community college students should be pepper-sprayed for trying to speak their minds. Yet so many people wrote in to say that the students deserved what they got, they were "spoiled brats." Others asserted that anyone who dared to protest policies should be pepper sprayed or even beaten up. Some felt the protest was warranted, but that as soon as police showed up, everyone should have meekly withdrawn.

Some commenters characterized the students in stereotypes reminiscent of the 1960s - evoking rowdy frat boys, long-haired hippies, entitled children of rich folks rebelling against their parents. Totally laughable, if you know Santa Monica College - but just as sad to see the reflexive hate embodied by the words.

The hallowed, ivy-covered halls of SMC
 Here's the issue - the college, like other academic institutions, is facing budget cuts. Since 2008, budget cuts have led to the cancellation of up to 1000 class sessions. There aren't enough spaces to meet demand. Tuition is still reasonable - $46 per unit - but what good is it if you can't get into a class you need?  The controversial measure would have hiked tuition for summer session classes to $180 per unit. The cost of a five-credit class would increase from $230 to $900.

The thinking is that people who could afford the higher cost classes would pay the extra cost for the luxury of getting a spot. This would take the pressure off the less expensive classes.

Only I don't think it would work out that way, do you? I am exactly the kind of student who probably should pay more. I have a good paying job. I am not in a degree program, and I'm taking French for my own enjoyment. But even I can't manage $900 for a French class.

Some students Tuesday night were said to have chanted "Education should be free!" - to the disgust of many newspaper commenters, who felt expressing that sentiment alone deserved having pepper-spray squirted in their faces.

Yet there was a time in this country when a college education was almost free. State universities offered an education to state residents at an extremely low cost. New York City's City College charged no tuition until 1976. As recently as four years ago, when I took my first French class there, Santa Monica College charged only $12 per credit unit. Now its a still-affordable $46. But students fear a two-tiered pricing plan would lead to higher prices overall, and unequal access to education.

Santa Monica College students are mostly part-time. Many of them work other jobs. The average age is 25. Most students are beginning their academic careers at an affordable cost with an eye toward transferring to a four-year college. In addition to dilettante middle-aged ladies like me, the student population includes many immigrants and foreign students, working people going back to school, and people trying to change careers. My co-worker's husband is a student - a former construction worker, he's enrolled in a nursing program. Another student I know is a 40 year old Army veteran going back to school to finish her Bachelor's degree. Will they be able to pay $900 for Calculus or Biology classes?

You can read full coverage about the issues and the incident HERE.

What's the state of higher education in America today as you see it? Discuss.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Yet so many people wrote in to say that the students deserved what they got, they were "spoiled brats." Others asserted that anyone who dared to protest policies should be pepper sprayed or even beaten up.

Authoritarian propaganda has found a fertile field in this country.

And neither of our political parties has the integrity to stand up to it. (For example, here's our Obama-Holder D.O.J.)

Cassi Renee said...

We (at the CC where I teach) have been quite interested in the Santa Monica story, even before the pepper-spraying.

The whole point of public education was to create a system where everyone had equal access. Charging more for certain classes is just another step on the way to privatizing education in this country, and another way to increase the already-huge gap between the rich and poor.

But public education is probably going away. Communities do not want to pay taxes to support the schools or teachers, whether it's college or secondary schools. At my college, the number of students choosing to go into education is tanking --they look at the news, and don't see teaching as a viable career choice anymore. Perhaps when teachers get scarce, and communities are faced with the prospect of not being able to find people to teach their kids, teaching will again become a valued profession.

Can you tell I'm bitter? :-)

Gary's third pottery blog said...

Conservatives like to think that college is for elites and only benefits the individual who gets the degree, whereas the truth is, you put in a like, a nickel, towards education and you get back a dollar. There are a lot of smart people that can use education to make this a better world, and why do we have to make that point? As the expression goes "if you think education is expensive, try ignorance".

SUEB0B said...

When I began at community college, classes were free. I actually think paying something helps people appreciate them more, but I think it should be on a sliding scale, with free classes available to those in need.

We need educated people. We need to make sure education is available to those motivated enough to pursue it. I'd be happy to pay more taxes to make that happen.