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Santa Monica College: Lost opportunity costs [Blowback]

March 26, 2012 |  8:00 am

Santa Monica College
The editorial board recently questioned Santa Monica College’s decision to offer two-tier course pricing. Here, Martin Goldstein, associate professor of communications at SMC, defends the school’s decision. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

As a teacher at Santa Monica College, my view of SMC offering  additional classes at a higher fee is necessarily shaped by my on-the-ground, in-the-trenches perspective. And that perspective says we should do it, and that students will want those classes, fill them up quickly, and be thankful for them.

Every semester for the last several years I have turned away as many students as I teach. Every semester I hear the pleas of students who can’t get classes they need to transfer and move on with their lives. Every semester I see the personal cost -- and can foresee the social cost -- because I know some of those people we are turning away are never coming back.

I believe those who oppose our additional classes are doing faulty math. They are comparing the few hundred dollars more in tuition per class -- saying that’s not “fair” -- while ignoring the much larger lost opportunity costs of not getting that class, not being able to transfer, not moving on with your life as you hope and plan. What’s the cost of that? 

Some of those we turn away will lose their way during that semester or year they have to wait, and will find the door of opportunity closing in on them. They have to earn a living, perhaps support a family during that time. Life happens, things get in the way, and the system seems to be playing a game of “bait and switch” with you, anyway, by promising a good public education -- then denying it to you when you want it and need it. Maybe it’s not worth it.

We at the community colleges live at the intersection of minimum wage and something better. We are the choice point, the fork in the road that turns you from high school graduate to someone with a chance of earning a decent living. Maybe an AA degree, maybe a BA, maybe retrained for a new career -- we make the difference that can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased income over the course of their lives. That’s our mission and we do it well -- when we can.

If we are underfunded, we can’t.  That’s the situation now. We’ve lost around 300,000 students out of the potential 2.9 million we should be serving. By turning them away, how much is that cost to society in income lost and taxes lost and quality of life diminished?

We know that it is a tragedy, and given that, why is it wrong to try to make it better?  Why is it wrong to give that opportunity to a few more? We now have the full assurance that nobody will be turned away because of cost with the recent $250,000 scholarship commitment, along with other grants and scholarships available. Yes, it’s different, but so is the world of education these days. But our mission is the same, and turning kids away if we don't have to is opposite to our mission. It's bad social policy and bad ethically.

And when someone waves the bloody flag of “privatization,” as doubtless they will, let me state clearly that these classes will be taught in the same public classrooms I teach in now, by the same publicly employed teachers who are teaching there now -- unionized and professional -- offering the same quality public education we have always offered at SMC.

People know a good deal when they see it, and whatever they cost in dollars, the lost opportunity costs of not getting those classes is incomparably greater. If we offer them, they will come, fill the classes, and be grateful for the chance to move on with their lives.


Cal State's closed-door plan

The college learning debate 

How much is enough for a Cal State president?

-- Martin Goldstein

Photo: Santa Monica College students are shown celebrating Earth Day with the Eco Action Club in 2010. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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