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New bill would lead to ‘fundamental change’ for community college students

Posted: August 22, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 22, 2012 2:00 a.m.

By Perry Smith

Signal Education Writer

Lawmakers are working on legislation that could fundamentally change a student’s community college experience, officials said Tuesday.

The bill has both positive and negative implications for local students, according to a COC official.

The bill, AB 1456, or the Student Success Act, puts new requirements on community college students and schools in regard to financial aid and counseling services.

“It requires a college or district receiving funds to provide student-support services,” said John Casey, chief of staff for the bill’s author, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.

“But it also requires students to identify educational goals or a degree program and declare a set of courses after a certain amount of time,” he said.

By establishing a grade point average requirement for financial aid, the law also will speed students through classes, rather than lingering at community colleges without any clear educational goals, said Paul Steenhausen of the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Schools will be given freedom to establish their own guidelines under the bill as it’s currently written.

“The personal income has gone way down, and the big thing is: It’s quite easy to get a fee waiver,” Steenhausen said. “We think it’s too easy.”

Currently, community college students may avoid paying a per-unit tuition fee by filling out a form that states their income is below a certain level. The income requirement changes based on the number of people in a household.

“People who are there for recreational purposes and people who are not making any progress to a degree” are among the groups most affected, Steenhausen said.

But the idea behind the bill runs contrary to the purpose of a community college, which is meant to keep its doors open to everyone, according to Mike Wilding, vice president of students services.

“You have to remember who they are,” Wilding said, referring to students who might be made ineligible by proposed academic restrictions on a state fee waiver.

“These are the students with the most financial need, and also the ones who are struggling, and the ones who we are there to help,” Wilding said.

Most of the counseling services required under AB 1456 are covered by programs COC already offers, he said.

The bill, the result of task force findings that are more than a decade old, is currently on the Assembly floor undergoing minor amendments, Casey of Lowenthal’s office said.

The bill should reach a final vote some time next week, Casey said. Aug. 31 marks the end of the current legislative session, and since the bill has carried bipartisan support, it should be passed by then, he said.

The idea of financial aid requirements is not a new one, Wilding said. And as a taxpayer, it’s a concept he certainly understands.

“I’m a taxpayer,” he said. “I want students on my dime to not dilly-dally and to get good grades. But I’m also realistic. I know that a lot of students are coming out of high school unprepared.”

The concern is that the bill would limit access for students — the very students community colleges are there to serve, he said.

“The federal government certainly does this (for financial aid). This is not a new concept,” Wilding said. “It’s just a fundamental change to the mission of community colleges in California.”


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