Doug Cohen: Lessons from Santa Monica College

Because of student outcry, Santa Monica College, a community college in Southern California, was forced this month to abandon a plan to charge $180 per credit hour for its most popular courses over the summer, while the least popular ones would remain $46 per hour.

Administrators hoped the plan would allow for less crowding in popular classes, while also preventing additional cutbacks. Students immediately protested the additional costs, arguing that it would create an economic stratification within the school. The measure was postponed in early April.

Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that administrators were frustrated the plan was not viewed as a progressive solution to the college’s fiscal issues.

It is surprising the administration and students could have such polarized reactions to the plan. And this divergence represents a dangerous schism in how young adults and academics alike view higher education.

As SMC continues to ponder whether or not the plan can be salvaged, other universities, including GW, should certainly take note of this debate.

Nationally, the unemployment rate is more than 8 percent, and cost of attendance has increased exponentially in higher education. While there are uncontrollable forces that cause increases in tuition, this does not matter to students.

And maybe that's unfair, but the old adage that perception is reality is certainly true in this case.

Because when students hear that their peers, who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree, are now taking jobs as waiters, continuing to raise tuition even more seems ridiculous. The justifications for raising tuition, such as inflation or the rising costs of health care and pensions, are not adequate responses for many.

To be sure, nobody is being pepper-sprayed at GW because of increasing tuition, but we do see inklings of frustration with the cost of attendance. The debate over fees this year is a prime example of discontent, a fight the Student Association's fee commission took up with their comprehensive list of fees.

The same goes for those who bemoan University President Knapp’s high salary. Students cannot seem to grasp why he and other administrators should make so much at a time when students are struggling to afford college. It may not be a fair judgment, but students do make it.

Can anything be done? There is no easy solution, but the best solution is for the University to communicate with students about tuition and campus costs.

Engaging in dialogue with students about any additional fees is one way to do this. Students become frustrated when they feel they are paying fees that go into a massive bureaucracy that constantly dries out their – and their parents' – bank accounts. Allowing students to understand the purpose of paying fees and the services that they fund will help alleviate this sense of irritation.

Beginning to partially itemize tuition bills will also make students aware of how their money is being used throughout the University. If students are able to understand the breakdown of how their money is spent, then they will have more of a sense of ownership over their tuition.

Students should not leave GW feeling like they were sneakily nickel-and-dimed while they also incurred thousands of dollars in debt. Rather, they should trust that their money is being used in a manner that directly benefits them.

Doug Cohen, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet contributing opinions editor.

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