Affordable access

HIGHER EDUCATION: Online access fees should not be passed on to students at community colleges to protect openness and access.

Accessibility and affordability are essential for public education to fulfill its purpose of creating a better functioning society. Community colleges in California remain the most open forms of higher education in the state’s three-tiered public system, and the state should work to preserve that accessibility.

Budget cuts have been detrimental for class sizes and course offerings, sparking a transition to online education as an affordable alternative at the community college level. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a community college task force recommended that community colleges charge access fees for online curricula. This underscores a disconcerting trend of fee increases for California’s public institutions of higher education. Fortunately, efforts to pass the fee publishers charge for their “off-the-shelf” curriculum on to students have stalled.

While publishers are entitled to fair compensation for their products, directly passing the cost of the curriculum to the student goes against the tenets of accessibility and affordability. The community college system is the most “public” of California’s three-tiered higher education institutions, mostly because of its openness and low cost. Students already pay registration fees — passing on additional curriculum costs would amount to forcing students to pay twice for a single product.

As it stands, such practices are illegal if the students cannot keep the online content. Any compromise on the issue must ensure that students are left with as many affordable options as possible. Students should have the choice of whether or not they want to keep the materials and then be charged according to whether or not they choose to purchase the content.

The debate going forward must emphasize accessibility and affordability. Community colleges are increasingly the only choice for cash-strapped Californians, and online education is growing rapidly amongst those students. They must not be targeted as a new pool of revenue. Because of the nature of the Internet and its potential to make education widely available at reduced cost, California must preserve public access in order to protect public education.

The state must continually fight to make education more accessible and affordable, and not peg the price of an education to market rates.